Category Archives: Agriculture

EnviroWatch: Outbreaks, nukes, GMOs, toxins


We’re really cheery in this edition. . .or not.

Consider first this from CBC News:

Ebola outbreak: More than doctors needed to contain West Africa’s unprecedented crisis

  • Over 1,200 cases already in deadly epidemic, including prominent physicians

Doctors alone aren’t enough to contain West Africa’s deadly Ebola outbreak, which has already infected, and in some instances killed, key medical personnel, including prominent Western and local physicians.

Quebec doctor Marc Forget, who has been on the front lines of the epidemic in Guinea for seven weeks, told CBC News that past Ebola outbreaks were contained quite quickly with the intervention of international groups such as Doctors Without Borders working in conjunction with a country’s ministry of health.

This time, he says, “the magnitude of the disease is unprecedented,” and a stronger response is required, both in resources and personnel — including water, sanitation and logistics specialists, as well as medical staff.

Here’s a Reuters map of Ebola outbreaks via CBC News. Click on the image to enlarge:

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The Independent watches the borders:

Is Ebola coming to Britain? UK health officials issue warning to doctors as outbreak fears grow

  • One of world’s deadliest viruses – which makes people bleed from their eyes, nose and mouth – has now been flown out of main affected countries

Public health experts have issued urgent warnings to British doctors and border officials to watch for signs of the Ebola virus arriving in the UK.

It comes after an infected man in Liberia was allowed to fly from disease-affected West African country to the major international travel hub of Lagos, Nigeria.

Experts from Public Health England (PHE) are meeting with representatives from the UK Border Agency and individual airports to make sure they are aware of the signs to look for and what to do if “the worst happens”.

United Press International covers a notable casualty:

Top Ebola doctor in Sierra Leone dies from infection

  • Dr. Sheikh Umar Khan, Sierra Leone’s leading medical expert on the Ebola virus, has died after becoming infected with the disease.

Dr. Sheikh Umar Khan, a doctor in Sierra Leone who was actively working to control the deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus, died Tuesday of the disease.

Khan became infected last week and had been in quarantine in an Ebola ward run by Medecins Sans Frontiere.

His death was confirmed by chief medical officer Dr. Brima Kargbo, who said his passing “is a big and irreparable loss to Sierra Leone as he was the only specialist the country had in viral hemorrhagic fevers.”

Corporate contagion challenged, via Shanghai Daily:

China vows zero tolerance and harsh punishment for rule-violating sales and growing of GM rice

CHINESE authorities have vowed zero tolerance and harsh punishment for rule-violating sales and growing of genetically modified (GM) crops days after a media exposure of GM rice on sale at a supermarket in central China.

“The ministry will punish any companies or individuals that ignore regulations to grow or sell GM grains,” the Ministry of Agriculture said Tuesday in a statement. “There will be no tolerance for those violating practices.”

China Central Television (CCTV) found GM rice, which is not allowed to be commercialized in China, on sale in the supermarket in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, the broadcaster reported on Saturday.

And from Common Dreams, a GMO-no:

Brazil Farmers Say GMO Corn No Longer Resistant to Bugs

  • Farm lobby group calls on Monsanto and other biotech companies to reimburse for additional pesticide treatments

Brazilian farmers say their GMO corn is no longer resistant to pests, Reuters reported Monday.

The Association of Soybean and Corn Producers of the Mato Grosso region said farmers first noticed in March that their genetically modified corn crops were less resistant to the destructive caterpillars that “Bt corn” — which has been genetically modified to produce a toxin that repels certain pests — is supposed to protect against. In turn, farmers have been forced to apply extra coats of insecticides, racking up additional environmental and financial costs.

The association, which goes by the name Aprosoja-MT, is calling on Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow companies to offer solutions as well as compensate the farmers for their losses. In a release posted to the Aprosoja-MT website, spokesman Ricardo Tomcyzk said farmers spent the equivalent of $54 per hectare to spray extra pesticides, and that the biotech companies promised something they didn’t deliver, “i.e. deceptive advertising.” (via Google Translate)

Another Brazilian story about another plague, from BBC News:

Amazon: Yanomami tribe’s Davi Kopenawa gets death threats

Davi Kopenawa of the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon rainforest said armed men had raided the offices of lawyers working with him. He said they were hired gunmen who had asked for him and wanted to kill him.

In February a major operation began to evict hundreds of gold miners from Yanomami land. Davi Kopenawa has been at the forefront of the struggle to protect Yanomami land for decades.

He told the BBC: “Illegal gold miners are still invading our land. They have leaders who organise the supplies and transport and support the invasion of our land. Ranchers have also invaded with their cattle.

Killing species to sate fashionable appetites, via the Independent:

African Pangolins at risk of extinction after becoming east Asian food favourites

  • More than a million pangolins are believed to have been snatched from the wild over the past decade

The pangolin, or scaly anteater, has become such a popular dish in affluent Asian circles that it is in danger of becoming extinct, according to a stark warning from a leading conservation organisation.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has just added the four African pangolin species to its list of species threatened with extinction after an escalation of poaching driven by the rapid economic growth across much of the East. This means that all eight pangolin species – the other four from Asia – are now on the list, raising the prospect of the anteater being wiped out altogether.

Pangolins have long been caught and killed for their purported medicinal properties, which include being a treatment for psoriasis and poor circulation.

From the Guardian, another kind of extinction:

New Zealand’s ‘dramatic’ ice loss could lead to severe decline of glaciers

  • Study says Southern Alps mountain range has lost 34% of permanent snow and ice since 1977

New Zealand’s vast Southern Alps mountain range has lost a third of its permanent snow and ice over the past four decades, diminishing some of the country’s most spectacular glaciers, new research has found.

A study of aerial surveys conducted by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) discovered that the Southern Alps’ ice volume has shrunk by 34% since 1977.

Researchers from the University of Auckland and University of Otago said this “dramatic” decrease has accelerated in the past 15 years and could lead to the severe decline of some of New Zealand’s mightiest glaciers.

On to those pesky Japanese nuclear woes, first from NHK WORLD:

Poor quake resistance to keep Ikata plant offline

The restart of a nuclear power plant in western Japan has been put off until at least early next year after its emergency control room failed to pass a more rigorous quake resistance review.

Shikoku Electric Power Company made the announcement about its Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture on Friday.

The room failed the review when the utility raised the estimated peak ground acceleration from a potential earthquake at the plant to 620 gals.

The review was part of the ongoing safety screening of the No. 3 reactor being undertaken by the Nuclear Regulation Authority.

NHK WORLD again, disposing:

Agency: Nuclear waste can be directly disposed of

The Japan Atomic Energy Agency is reported to be looking at the direct disposal of spent nuclear fuel instead of reprocessing it.

NHK has obtained a draft report compiled by the agency which analyzed the environmental impact of disposing of spent nuclear fuel.

The conclusion of the analysis is expected to touch off controversy, because the government has long maintained the policy of reprocessing all spent nuclear fuel. It has conducted few studies about disposing of it as waste.

Spent nuclear fuel is known to have higher radiation levels than high-level radioactive waste.

More fuelishness, this time from the Japan Times:

U.S. energy secretary defends possible German nuclear waste imports

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz on Monday defended his agency’s controversial move to consider processing spent nuclear fuel from Germany at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site nuclear facility, saying the proposal is consistent with U.S. efforts to secure highly enriched uranium across the globe.

The United States has for years accepted spent fuel from research reactors in various countries that was produced with uranium of U.S. origin as a part of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy and treaties.

Receiving the German spent fuel would be “very much in line with our mission of removing the global danger of nuclear weapons material,” Moniz told reporters before a visit to the South Carolina nuclear facility.

Displacing history for the yachting crowd, via the Asahi Shimbun:

Tahiti memorial commemorating those impacted by French nuclear tests in danger of removal

The French Polynesian government’s decision to remove a monument on Tahiti dedicated to those who suffered from repeated French nuclear testing in the South Pacific is facing growing opposition, including from survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

On June 11, the government, headed by French Polynesia President Gaston Flosse, decided to rescind permission to use the current location in a park that sits along the ocean in the capital, Papeete.

“It is desirable to construct new facilities to accept yachts and boats and renovate (current) facilities for tourists,” Flosse said.

MintPress News covers other problems from other fuels:

Western Penn. Residents Request Fracking-Related Illness Probe

  • Scientists are asked to either prove or refute theories connecting a range of health problems with nearby fracking operations.

Across the nation, communities are challenging claims that fracking is safe. Residents living near the litany of well pods that are being built or are already in operation continue to report nosebleeds, headaches, skin rashes, dizziness and nausea. Research is increasingly supporting theories connecting such symptoms to fracking well proximity. According to a Jan. 28 Colorado School of Public Health report, for example, mothers living close to a cluster of fracking wells have as much as a 30 percent additional risk of their child being born with a birth defect. A second study, released by the Endocrine Society in December, found that exposure to fracking fluid could disrupt hormone functioning, leading to a greater chance of infertility, cancer and other health problems.

While some states, such as New York and Maryland, have taken these health concerns seriously, and have issued statewide moratoriums on fracking, other states, drawn to the revenue the expanded oil and natural gas drilling would bring to their coffers, have allowed fracking operations to set up with virtually no state regulation and no vetting of the safety of the process. The drive toward making America energy-independent has also led to the federal government taking a hands-off approach in regards to dealing with fracking, with several pieces of legislation in place to make it difficult for federal agencies to impose safety regulations on oil and gas companies.

In fracking-heavy Washington County, Pennsylvania, residents have reached out to a group of local scientists to prove definitively that their illnesses are being caused by the fracking well pods. The group, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, is offering free health evaluations to families local to the drilling sites. In Pennsylvania, there are no planned or ongoing health studies in place with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection — which oversees the state’s oil and gas industries — and none of the impact fees the state collects from drilling operations go toward health programs or initiatives.

And for our final item, there’s exxxcellent news for Montgomery Burns from the Independent:

Luxury cruise line accused of offering ‘environmental disaster tourism’ with high-carbon footprint Arctic voyage

A luxury cruise operator in the US has announced it will offer a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip to experience the environmental devastation of the Arctic – using a mode of transport that emits three times more CO2 per passenger per mile than a jumbo jet.

It will be the first ever leisure cruise through the Northwest Passage, only accessible now because of the melting of polar ice, and is being marketed at those with an interest in witnessing the effects of climate change first-hand.

Tickets for the trip, scheduled for 16 August 2016 and organised by Crystal Cruises, will cost between $20,000 (£12,000) and $44,000.

Yet there is no mention on Crystal Cruises’ promotion or FAQ for the journey of the boat’s own carbon footprint.

EnviroWatch: Fires, toxins, nukes, crops


Our compendium of news environmental begins with Golden State burning, via the Christian Science Monitor:

California fire threatens 500 homes, more high temps forecast

California fire crews are battling the so-called Sand Fire, which doubled in size over the weekend, as well as a fire near Yosemite National Park. Intense heat is expected to continue in the state this week.

More than 1,000 residents have been evacuated from the Sierra Nevada foothills as wildfire threatens 500 homes.

The so-called Sand Fire doubled in size over the weekend, burning 13 homes and outbuildings and scorching six square miles of grassland and timber near Plymouth, Calif., some 30 miles east of Sacramento. Nearly 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze with the help of a DC-10 air tanker, but high temperatures and gusting winds continue to fan the flames. The blaze, which began on Friday, is currently 50 percent contained.

The intense heat is expected to continue throughout the week, further complicating efforts to battle the fire and heightening the potential for other outbreaks, Sacramento-based National Weather Service meteorologist Drew Peterson told the Los Angeles Times.

From CBC News, corporate poisoning north of the border:

Mercury survivors neglected by government, Grassy Narrows First Nation claims

A northwestern Ontario First Nation has released a five-year-old report confirming the community suffers ongoing effects from mercury poisoning, but it says the government has never acted on the findings.

At a news conference in Toronto on Monday, members of Grassy Narrows First Nation presented the 2009 report that they say should have been made public long ago.

The report was commissioned by the Mercury Disability Board, an organization established in 1986 through an out-of-court settlement to assess and manage claims related to mercury contamination in the Wabigoon/English River system.

A Dryden-based paper company dumped mercury into the river between 1962 and 1970, contaminating the main source of fish for Grassy Narrows First Nation and Wabesemoong Independent Nations.

And from EcoWatch, troubled waters on the northern border:

Plastic Pellets Pollute Lake Erie

Millions of industrial plastic pellets pollute the sands beneath our feet, but you can’t see them unless you look closely, and no beach cleanup will ever make it better.

“We picked up all the bags and bottles already,” said one young volunteer that collected trash on Whiskey Island at Wendy Park’s Sandy Beach, along the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland as part of the Burning River Fest. I was sitting next to her on the ground sifting through leaf litter picking up the little pieces. I yelled, “I’ll give a dollar to the first person to find a pellet!” Within a few minutes a dozen volunteers were on their hand and knees picking up thousands of them. The amount of pellets on this beach is equivalent to a least one plastic bottle every three feet.

Industries that make or use preproduction plastic pellets contribute to the problem of uncontrolled pellet loss. Preproduction plastic is the raw plastic resin materials that are molded into finished plastic products, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency. Preproduction plastics are often produced in a resin pellet format, occasionally termed as “nurdles.” These small, 1- to 5- mm diameter pieces are produced in various shapes, colors and plastic types. Preproduction plastics can be produced in powder, granule and flake form.

From the Guardian, the best “science” money can buy:

Bee research tainted by corporate funding, MPs say

  • Report warns against letting pesticide companies fund key research for government plan to boost pollinators

Criticial future research on the plight of bees risks being tainted by corporate funding, according to a report from MPs published on Monday. Pollinators play a vital role in fertilising three-quarters of all food crops but have declined due to loss of habitat, disease and pesticide use. New scientific research forms a key part of the government’s plan to boost pollinators but will be funded by pesticide manufacturers.

UK environment ministers failed in their attempt in 2013 to block an EU-wide ban on some insecticides linked to serious harm in bees and the environmental audit select committee (EAC) report urges ministers to end their opposition, arguing there is now even more evidence of damage. Millions of member of the public have supported the ban.

“When it comes to research on pesticides, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is content to let the manufacturers fund the work,” said EAC chair Joan Walley. “This testifies to a loss of environmental protection capacity in the department responsible for it. If the research is to command public confidence, independent controls need to be maintained at every step. Unlike other research funded by pesticide companies, these studies also need to be peer-reviewed and published in full”.

On to Latin America for two contrasting agricultural stories via Public Radio International:

Brazil is set to become the world’s biggest soy producer — and that might be bad news for its forests

In the soy bean world, all eyes are now on the state of Mato Grosso in Brazil.

It’s covered by millions of acres of industrial farms and deep green soy fields. If this year’s harvest — the best in Brazilian history — comes in as expected, Brazil is poised to surpass the US and become the world’s largest soy producer. Soy beans have boosted Brazil’s economy and even brought President Dilma Roussef to Mato Grosso to congratulate farmers in person.

But in a nearby indigenous village, no one is celebrating. The boom in soy production coincided with a spike in deforestation. And Hiparidi Toptiro, an activist from the indigenous Xavante people, says local soy farmers are willing to do anything for a chunk of the forest where the Xavante live.

“Throughout our lands, people show up wielding false deeds to the area,” Toptiro says.  “And they have begun to plant soybeans inside our lands. They pay off one of our villages with a little money, which complicates the relationship between all of us in the reserve. “ He calls it dividing and conquering with trinkets.

The Guardian looks at the alternative:

Can ‘agroecology’ bring food security to Latin America?

  • A home-grown, alternative approach to farming is bad news for pesticides, monoculture and food poverty in Brazil

In response to problems caused by agribusiness, including contamination of natural resources, increases in food prices, soil infertility and health problems, agroecology has emerged as a marriage between science, traditional agriculture and social movements.

Family farming, the practice which agroecology is based on, involves about 500 million people worldwide, according statistics from UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Agroecological farmers produce relatively more food. In South America, family farming takes place on 18% of the territory and produces about 40% of its food.

María de Los Angeles is an Ecuadorian representative of the agroecological movement of Latin America and the Caribbean. She says conventional production is not sustainable because it degrades the soil and is based on fossil fuels.

“Agroecology recovers elements of each territory and knowledge developed by farmers for thousands of years. Instead of monoculture, we’re talking about preserving biodiversity and humankind itself.”

Off to Japan for the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!, starting with an offering from Jiji Press:

No Clear Effect of Fukushima Groundwater Bypass: TEPCO

Tokyo Electric Power Co. admitted Monday that it still cannot confirm whether a so-called groundwater bypass operation at its crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is working.

In May, the utility began the operation to pump untainted groundwater into the sea so that the water will not flow into reactor buildings and increase the amount of radioactive water at the plant.

TEPCO official Teruaki Kobayashi told a news conference Monday that the company is still unable to see tangible results from the operation in reactor buildings.

From the Asahi Shimbun, justifiable skepticism:

ASAHI POLL: 59% oppose planned restart of Kyushu reactors

Nearly 60 percent of citizens are opposed to the planned restart of reactors at the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, the first such restart under tougher standards introduced after the Fukushima crisis, according to an Asahi Shimbun survey.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority on July 16 concluded that reactors at the Kyushu Electric Power Co. plant meet the safety standards introduced after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami triggered the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

It is the first time since the Fukushima nuclear disaster began that a nuclear plant has passed the NRA’s stricter inspections.

The Asahi Shimbun again, with cause for even more skepticism:

Former Kansai Electric Power executive reveals 18 years of secret payments to prime ministers

A former top official at Kansai Electric Power Co. has come forward to reveal a nearly 20-year history of doling out “top secret” huge donations to Japanese prime ministers, funded on the backs of ratepayers.

Chimori Naito, 91, a former KEPCO vice president, said that for 18 years from 1972, seven prime ministers received 20 million yen (about $200,000 now) annually from Yoshishige Ashihara, who served as both KEPCO president and chairman.

At that time, political donations to individual lawmakers were not illegal. However, in 1974, electric power companies declared a ban on corporate donations to politicians because of strong public opposition to the use of electricity fees to pay for such contributions.

Naito had long taken pride in working closely with Ashihara in making the donations as part of efforts to promote nuclear energy and to further develop the electric power industry.

NHK WORLD covers a hot real estate deal:

Govt. won’t nationalize radioactive storage site

The government says it will allow landowners to keep their property rights for the land where it will build temporary storage facilities for radioactive debris in Fukushima Prefecture. It had originally planned to buy the land for the facilities.

Environment Minister Nobuteru Ishihara and Reconstruction Minister Takumi Nemoto met Fukushima Prefecture Governor Yuhei Sato and the mayors of Futaba and Okuma in Tokyo on Monday. The two towns host the crippled nuclear power plant.

The government had planned to buy land from landowners in the towns to build the intermediate storage facilities for radioactive soil and waste from the nuclear power plant. But some landowners had refused to sell.

From the Guardian, fracking Britain’s heritage:

Fracking: oil exploration already occurs in national parks, says energy minister

  • Tory MP Matthew Hancock’s remark comes as firms are invited to bid for first onshore oil and gas licences in six years

Ministers are right to leave the door open to fracking in national parks because oil and gas have been exploited uncontroversially in such areas for decades, Matthew Hancock, the new energy minister, has said.

Unveiling the first new competition for onshore oil and gas licences for six years, the Conservative MP said there would need to be exceptional circumstances for shale drilling in protected countryside but people should remember that national parks cover 16% of the UK.

The government is on Monday to advertise around half of the UK to companies which want to exploit shale gas, in the first sale of new onshore licences since experts discovered the scale of the UK’s reserves.

And for our final item, a chiller from News Corp Australia:

The arrival of an Ebola-infected air passenger in Nigeria has airlines and airports scrambling to respond around the world

A MAN collapses at an international airport: It’s a hackneyed scene from almost every plague film ever made. But now it has happened — airports around the world are on high alert as fears mount that the deadly Ebola virus is on the move.

Nigerian health authorities are racing to stop the spread of the flesh-eating Ebola virus after a man sick with one of the world’s deadliest diseases carried it by plane to Lagos, Africa’s largest city with 21 million people.

Nigeria is so concerned it has ordered the establishment of “disease isolation centres” at international airports across the country to prevent any further entry of the untreatable disease.

But the horse may have already bolted.

EnviroWatch: Loans, drought, laws, radiation


Today’s first item, via the Guardian, covers the sad but not so surprising:

Leaked World Bank lending policies ‘environmentally disastrous’

  • New ‘light touch’ rules on bank’s $50bn annual lending have been gutted to remove protections, watchdogs claim

Radical plans by the World Bank to relax the conditions on which it lends up to $50bn (£29bn) a year to developing countries have been condemned as potentially disastrous for the environment and likely to weaken protection of indigenous peoples and the poor.

A leaked draft of the bank’s proposed new “safeguard policies”, seen by the Guardian, suggests that existing environmental and social protection will be gutted to allow logging and mining in even the most ecologically sensitive areas, and that indigenous peoples will not have to be consulted before major projects like palm oil plantations or large dams palm go ahead on land which they traditionally occupy.

Under the proposed new “light touch” rules, the result of a two year consultation within the bank, borrowers will be allowed to opt out of signing up to employment safeguards, existing protection for biodiversity will be shredded, countries will be allowed to assess themselves, and harmful projects are much more likely to occur, according to World Bank watchdog groups including the Bank Information Centre (BIC), the Ulu Foundation and the International Trade Union Confederation.

And on to our ongoing coverage of the drought parching the Golden State and the West, first with a scorcher from BBC News:

Two California wildfires destroy 10 homes

Two fast-moving wildfires in California have destroyed 10 homes and have forced the evacuation of hundreds more, US officials say.

In the Sacramento region, a fire has spread to cover an area of about 4,000 acres, while another blaze threatens homes around Yosemite National Park.

The Sacramento fire is around 35% contained, officials told local media.

Months of drought have caused more fires in California this year – some 1,400, twice the usual number.

The Los Angeles Times digs down:

Farmers drilling deeper for water as drought drags on

California’s three-year drought has sparked a surge in demand for wells in the state’s agricultural heartland. With federal and state allocations of surface water reduced to a trickle, growers are searching deeper underground for sources of water to keep their farms from ruin.

The clamor has overwhelmed California drillers and pump installers, forcing some farms to hire contractors from neighboring states.

It’s also setting the stage for more problems later as groundwater supplies are shrinking faster than they can be replenished. In parts of the Central Valley, the water table has plummeted, drying up old wells and sinking the land above, a phenomenon called subsidence.

That’s resulted in even deeper wells that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and require more energy to pump water to the surface. As recently as two decades ago, a well several hundred feet would suffice. Today, large farms are drilling to depths of 2,000 feet in anticipation of falling water levels.

“We’re going bigger horsepower every year,” said Charles Barber, president of Caruthers Pump south of Fresno, who has customers on a three-month waiting list. “We’ve lost 30 feet of groundwater in a year in some places. We keep that up for 10 years and we won’t be farming like this anymore.”

From Al Jazeera America, a crackdown:

Cali water cops: What you gonna do when they come for you?

  • State resources officials are aggressively policing the dire shortage by imposing fines on drought rule violators

But the Los Angeles Times covers the scofflaws:

California officials admit they have incomplete water usage data

When state regulators tried to tally water use across California recently, they didn’t exactly get a flood of cooperation.

Of the 440 water agencies in the state, only 276 provided water consumption data. And officials in San Diego made a point of formally refusing the request, saying the state’s method for measuring water use in California’s second-largest city was “misleading and technically inappropriate.”

The State Water Resources Control Board released the result of its survey earlier this month, showing an 8% increase in water use in Southern California in May while most of the rest of the state was using less water.

And what water there in the Midwest, is increasingly likely to be toxic, reports Common Dreams:

Notorious ‘Neonics’ Pervasive in Midwest Waters: Study

Researchers from the USGS found the insecticides in waterways of nation’s corn, soy region.

A new study has added to mounting evidence against a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, or “neonics.”

Linked in numerous studies to bee declines, the new research looks at neonics’ impacts on surface water.

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey looked at 9 rivers and streams in the U.S. Midwest—home to vast plantings of corn and soybeans as well as widespread use of neonics—in the 2013 growing season.

On to the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!, starting with this bit of ominous news from the Asahi Shimbun:

Water leaks continue to plague No. 5 reactor at Fukushima plant

A leak of radioactive water was found in the piping of water used to cool the spent fuel pool in the undamaged No. 5 reactor building of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, its operator said on July 19, a sign of possible deterioration in the system.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. said water from the cooling pond leaked, citing comparable levels of the concentration of radioactive substances in the leak and the pool.

A TEPCO employee found a pool of water in each of two boxes–75 centimeters by 50 cm–that house a control valve in the cooling water piping system on the fifth floor of the No. 5 reactor building at 1:25 a.m. on July 19.

From the Asahi Shimbun again, why are we not surprised?:

Restarts of reactors in Ehime delayed due to insufficient safety standards

Restarts of reactors at the Ikata nuclear power plant in Ehime Prefecture will be delayed until at least next year because the site does not meet safety standards.

Its operator, Shikoku Electric Power Co., is being forced to construct a new emergency headquarters building at the facility as the current one, which was completed after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, fails to meet the new criteria.

The new building is scheduled to be completed in January 2015 at the earliest. Given that procedures for safety screening take time, the utility said it was doubtful the reactors could be reactivated this fiscal year, which ends in March 2015.

From Kyodo News, a measure sure to inspire confidence — or not:

Local gov’ts give iodine tablets to residents as reactor restart looms

Local governments started Sunday handing out iodine tablets to residents living within 5 kilometers of an offline nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, southwestern Japan, that may restart in the fall.

It is the first time iodine tablets have been distributed under Nuclear Regulation Authority guidelines instituted following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Iodine tablets help protect thyroids from radiation.

The move by the Kagoshima prefectural and Satsumasendai city governments came after Kyushu Electric Power Co.’s Sendai plant cleared a safety hurdle key to its restart earlier this month.

The Asahi Shimbun withdraws:

Plan dropped for land purchases to host nuclear debris storage sites

In the face of strong opposition, the government has abandoned its plan to purchase all of the land needed to build temporary storage sites for radioactive debris, sources said.

The idea was dropped after some landowners at prospective sites refused to sell, fearing the storage facilities located near the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant would end up being permanent.

Instead of purchasing all of the plots, the government now plans on leasing some of the land from landowners.

And from the Japan Times, looking across the Pacific:

Problems dog plans for U.S. nuclear plants

The U.S. nuclear industry has started building its first new plants in decades using prefabricated Lego-like blocks meant to save time and money and revive the once promising energy source.

But so far, it is not working.

Quality and cost problems have cropped up again, raising questions about whether nuclear power will ever be able to compete with other electricity sources. The first two reactors built after a 16-year lull, Southern Co.’s Vogtle plant in Georgia and SCANA Corp.’s VC Summer plant in South Carolina, are being assembled in large modules. Large chunks of the modules are built off-site, in an effort to improve quality and avoid the chronic cost overruns that all but killed the nuclear industry when the first wave of plants was being built in the 1960s and 1970s.

Analysts say engineers created designs that were hard or impossible to make, according to interviews and regulatory filings reviewed by AP. The factory in Louisiana that constructed the prefabricated sections struggled to meet strict quality rules. Utility companies got early warnings but proved unable to avoid the problems. Now the firms leading the project are phasing out the Louisiana factory for work on the biggest modules and contracting with new manufacturers.

While the Los Angeles Times covers another, surprising source of radioactive waste, fracking:

Oil drilling in North Dakota raises concerns about radioactive waste

Every weekday, about a dozen large garbage trucks peel away from the oil boom that has spread through western North Dakota to bump along a gravel road to the McKenzie County landfill.

Nearly 1,000 radioactive filters were found last year at the landfill, part of a growing tide of often toxic waste produced by the state’s oil and gas rush. Oil field waste includes drill cuttings — rock and earth that come up a well bore — along with drilling fluids and wastewater laced with chemicals used in fracking.

To many local and tribal officials, environmentalists and some industry managers in North Dakota, the dumping of the socks and the proliferation of other waste shows the government falling short in safeguarding the environment against oil field pollution.

And for our final item, the New York Times reminds us who’s footing the bill:

The Typical Household, Now Worth a Third Less

Economic inequality in the United States has been receiving a lot of attention. But it’s not merely an issue of the rich getting richer. The typical American household has been getting poorer, too.

The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years. Other research, by economists like Edward Wolff at New York University, has shown even greater gains in wealth for the richest 1 percent of households.

Map of the day II: Looming water apocalypse


The Colorado River Basin, where groundwater is being extracted at levels certain the lead of a catastrophic water failure for the American West in the the near-term future.

Via the Jet Propulsion Laboratory [JPL]. Click on the image to enlarge:

BLOG Groundwater

More from the JPL:

A new study by NASA and University of California, Irvine, scientists finds more than 75 percent of the water loss in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin since late 2004 came from underground resources. The extent of groundwater loss may pose a greater threat to the water supply of the western United States than previously thought.

This study is the first to quantify the amount that groundwater contributes to the water needs of western states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal water management agency, the basin has been suffering from prolonged, severe drought since 2000 and has experienced the driest 14-year period in the last hundred years.

The research team used data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite mission to track changes in the mass of the Colorado River Basin, which are related to changes in water amount on and below the surface. Monthly measurements in the change in water mass from December 2004 to November 2013 revealed the basin lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater. That’s almost double the volume of the nation’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead. More than three-quarters of the total — about 41 million acre feet (50 cubic kilometers) — was from groundwater.

“We don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out,” said Stephanie Castle, a water resources specialist at the University of California, Irvine, and the study’s lead author. “This is a lot of water to lose. We thought that the picture could be pretty bad, but this was shocking.”

Read the rest.

H/T to Ignacio Chapela.

EconoEnviroWatch: Drought, fires, poisons


For today’s second headline collection, we offer news of the environment, as well as some relevant economic and political stories.

We begin with an alarm from Circle of Blue:

Colorado River’s Course Through A Drying Landscape Is Draining Lake Mead

  • Along the 1,800-mile river basin, locals wrestle with water demands.

The effects of lingering drought, and the unrelenting demand for water from farmers, cities, and energy producers converged today at Lake Mead, which drained to its lowest level since 1937 when the Hoover Dam closed off the Colorado River to begin filling the largest reservoir in the United States.

In dropping to a record-low water level the huge lake, which straddles the border between southern Nevada and northwestern Arizona, has emerged as an important measure of water insecurity in the American West. Just as gasoline prices serve as a national gauge of American economic stress — relieving psychic pressure as prices go down, causing strain as they rise — Lake Mead’s steadily declining water levels are a visible and widely reported gauge of intensifying water scarcity in the fastest growing region of the United States.

Lake Mead sits near the end of the Colorado River, which stretches 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) across seven U.S. states before entering Mexico. Its course is through one of the earth’s grandest landscapes. Lake Mead reflects the mammoth scale of the geography and its drying condition.

The California angle from Weather West:

An overview of California’s ongoing and extraordinary drought: a tale of exceptional dryness and record warmth

Droughts historically have a way of sneaking up on California, and the extraordinary 2012-2014 drought has been no exception.

Year-to-year and even season-to-season rainfall variability is quite high in this part of the world, which means that it’s nearly impossible to know whether a single dry year (or season) portends the beginning of a much more prolonged or intense dry period. Indeed–the 2012-2013 rainy season had an extremely wet start–so wet, in fact, that an additional large storm during December 2012 would likely have led to serious and widespread flooding throughout Northern California. But no additional significant storms did occur during December 2012–nor during January 2013…nor February, March, April, or May. In fact, January-June 2013 was the driest start to the calendar year  on record for the state of California in at least 118 years of record keeping. Some parts of the state saw virtually no precipitation at all during this period, which made for an especially stark contrast with the extremely wet conditions experienced just a few months earlier.

How did this drastic change occur so quickly? The second half of the 2012-2013 Water Year saw the development of the now infamous Ridiculously Resilient Ridge (or RRR)–an extraordinarily persistent region of high pressure over the northeastern Pacific Ocean in the middle atmosphere that forced the mid-latitude storm track well to the north of its typical position and prevented winter storms from reaching California.

And just how dry is the Golden State? Consider this from the United States Drought Monitor, showing that all of California is in a state of Severe Drought, and a phenomenal 36.49 percent is in the most extreme state of Exceptional Drought:

BLOG CalDrought

Next up, fracking the drought with Pacific Standard:

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

  • The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.

California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review of more than 100 others in the state’s drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.

The state’s Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.” The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

From South of the Border, the opposite course via Frontera NorteSur:

Mexican Fracking Foes Lose a Big Round

Mexican opponents of the controversial method of extracting natural gas known as fracking lost an important battle in the Mexican Senate late last week. As part of a 91-26 vote that approved secondary legislation implementing the Pena Nieto administration’s energy reform, most senators rejected a measure that would have prohibited fracking.

Prior to the July 18 vote, the Mexican Alliance against Fracking, a grouping of environmental organizations, presented senators with a petition signed by more than 10,000 people that supported a fracking ban.
Nonetheless, a majority of senators from President Pena Nieto’s PRI party joined with lawmakers from the PAN and PVEM (Mexican Green) parties to reject an outright prohibition of fracking. Voting in favor of a ban were members of the PRD and PT parties.

Senator Pablo Escudero, PVEM representative, maintained that environmental studies in the United States, as well as the history of fracking in Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico and other states, showed that fracking could be done in a safe manner. To back up his case, Escudero referred to studies by University of California physicist Dr. Richard Muller, whose pro-environment arguments in favor of fracking have engendered sharp polemics.

When drought meets austerity, via the Christian Science Monitor:

Western wildfires burn through firefighting budgets

The cost of fighting wildfires has eaten into agency budgets meant for forest management and fire preparedness. Proposed federal legislation would treat such fires as natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes.

As 26 major wildfires currently rage across the American West – 18 of them in Oregon and Washington – they’re rapidly burning through firefighting budgets as well.

As a result, experts warn, firefighting agencies such as the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior have to raid other fire-related programs – forest management and fire preparedness, for example – to battle the blazes.

The reasons for this are multiple and complicated: Years of fire suppression instead of letting fires burn naturally allowed fuel levels to grow dangerously; climate change has brought on changes in weather patterns; and housing and other development pushed into what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface” – some 60 percent of all new homes built since 1990, according to environmental economist Ray Rasker.

From EurActiv, the environment gets cowed:

Scientists find beef production harmful to the environment

Production of beef is nearly ten times more damaging to the environment than any other form of meat production, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

American scientists measured the environment inputs required for beef production and concluded that beef cattle need 28 times more land and 11 times more irrigation water than pork, poultry, eggs or dairy.

The researchers developed a uniform methodology that they were able to apply to all five livestock categories and to four measures of environmental performance.

On to Japan for the latest episode of Fukushimapocalypse Now!, first with the Japan Daily Press:

Testimony of Fukushima plant manager reveals safety inspectors were first to flee during disaster

Masao Yoshida – the former plant manager of the Fukushima nuclear power plant during the time when it was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 – died of cancer last year, but his recorded testimony revealed a flaw in the disaster management process that probably caused the chaos around the way Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) dealt with the disaster at that time. According to Yoshida’s testimony, the safety inspectors were among the first to flee the site at the time of the disaster.

The safety inspectors were under the Nuclear Industrial Safety Agency (NISA), the predecessor of the Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), and they were supposed to remain on site to be able to give a factual and solid assessment of what needed to be done to deal with the accident and the multiple reactor meltdowns. As such, with the lack of safety inspectors onsite, the Japanese government was forced to rely on sometimes erroneous and mostly chaotic information from TEPCO.

Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan had gone to TEPCO’s Tokyo office, ultimately leading to the decision that a base of communications for the disaster was set up by TEPCO and the Japanese government in Tokyo, 230 kilometers away from where the disaster was taking place. That in itself was a hindrance to the proper flow of information and the correct assessment of the disaster.

NHK WORLD runs the numbers:

One trillion Bq released by nuclear debris removal

The operator of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant says more than one trillion becquerels of radioactive substances were released as a result of debris removal work at one of the plant’s reactors.

Radioactive cesium was detected at levels exceeding the government limit in rice harvested last year in Minami Soma, some 20 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi.

There are fears that some rice paddies in the city have been tainted by airborne radioactive material released when debris was removed from the plant’s No.3 reactor in August last year.

On Wednesday, Tokyo Electric Power Company presented the Nuclear Regulation Authority with an estimate that the removal work discharged 280 billion becquerels per hour of radioactive substances, or a total of 1.1 trillion becquerels.

Poisoning primates, via the Guardian:

Japanese monkeys’ abnormal blood linked to Fukushima disaster – study

  • Primates in Fukushima region found to have low white and red blood cell levels and radioactive caesium

Wild monkeys in the Fukushima region of Japan have blood abnormalities linked to the radioactive fall-out from the 2011 nuclear power plant disaster, according to a new scientific study that may help increase the understanding of radiation on human health.

The Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata) were found to have low white and red blood cell levels and low haemoglobin, which the researchers say could make them more prone to infectious diseases.

But critics of the study say the link between the abnormal blood tests and the radiation exposure of the monkeys remains unproven and that the radiation doses may have been too small to cause the effect.

The scientists compared 61 monkeys living 70km (44 miles) from the the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant with 31 monkeys from the Shimokita Penisula, over 400km (249 miles) from Fukushima. The Fukushima monkeys had low blood counts and radioactive caesium in their bodies, related to caesium levels in the soils where they lived. No caesium was detected in the Shimokita troop.

From the Japan Daily Press, pressing feet to the [nuclear] fire:

TEPCO shareholders seeking disclosure of nuclear accident interview records

It seems that three years after the nuclear disaster that crippled Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, the operator’s problems are far from over. While the problem of decontamination is ongoing, albeit slowly, the next battle is set to come as shareholders in the firm are looking at filing lawsuits to determine the real cause of the incident.

The shareholders are planning to request from the Cabinet Secretariat copies of the interviews conducted, which many already assume would be denied. Such denial would force the shareholders to no other recourse but to file legal action against the government so it would release interview records of 772 people for their own analysis. Not only that, they also plan to file a separate legal action against TEPCO to see if executives and managers of the company played a hand in the disaster and the problems resulting from the meltdown.

Next up, more disastrous blowback at the disastrous intersection of Big Pharma, politics, and those who pay the real price. From Süddeutsche Zeitung:

Doctors Blame Factory Farming For Failing Antibiotics

Citing the failure of antibiotics to work effectively in their patients, a group of German doctors and other healthcare providers are laying blame on the factory farming industry — and calling for reform.

The doctors say that antibiotics no longer work because of multi-resistant germs that patients carry, at least some of which have their origins in the way animals are bred. Germs from agro-industrial facilities that are resistant to antibiotics are a massive threat to human health, the campaign founders say.

The first nationwide campaign of this type is so far being supported by 250 doctors, carers and pharmacists. They are demanding humane breeding of animals, sharper controls, and sanctions against those who put antibiotics in animal feed.

If action is not taken, antibiotics may soon be entirely ineffective as a weapon against bacterial infections in both humans and animals, warns professor of veterinary medicine Siegfried Ueberschär. Doctors now often try in vain to save the lives and health of patients with weak immune systems, and there are no new antibiotics in sight, says Bremen-based internist Imke Lührs.

And for our final item, a very import reminder of the profound consequences of cultural differences, not patentable by Big Pharma. From the London Daily Mail:

How schizophrenia is shaped by our culture: Americans hear voices as threatening while Indians and Africans claim they are helpful

  • Scientists came to the conclusion after speaking with 60 schizophrenics
  • 20 came from California, 20 from Accra, Ghana and 20 from Chennai, India
  • In America, voices were intrusion and a threat to patient’s private world
  • In India and Africa, the study subjects were not as troubled by the voices
  • The difference may be down to the fact that Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity
  • Whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self as interwoven with others and defined through relationships

Big Pharma latest victims: Europe’s vultures


A livestock drug that has already killed most of India’s once numerous vultures is now coming to Spain, a nation where the magnificent creatures are already threatened by by mistaken cultural beliefs.

From Deutsche Welle:

Program notes:

pain is home to the largest population of vultures in Europe, but their numbers are steadily declining. A new drug for cattle now threatens to wipe out the vultures altogether.

Vultures have long had a bad reputation in Spain. Time and time again, the birds are illegally poisoned, because they are said to prey on living cattle. Now the EU has authorized the administration of veterinary diclofenac to livestock in Spain and Italy – a deadly threat to the four species of vultures that live in Spain.

The anti-inflammatory drug has already led to the near-extinction of the vulture population in India, Pakistan and Nepal. The birds ingest the substance when eating the carcasses of cattle treated with the drug, and die of kidney failure.

Video reports: As seen from overseas


First up, from China’s CCTV America, a report on America’s record rate of people needed helping putting food on the table:

U.S. is at [Greater] Risk of Hunger Than Ever Before

Next up, a report from RT America on weekend global protests targeting an American corporate giant:

Anti-Monsanto protests hit streets around the world

Program notes:

Protesters from 52 countries and 436 cities participated in Anti-Monsanto, Anti-Genetically Modified Foods rallies over the weekend. Activists rallied, marched and held speeches to demand for GM foods to be labeled or banned altogether. RT Correspondent Meghan Lopez was at the March Against Monsanto in Washington, D.C. over the weekend and brings us her report.

Finally, from Britain’s Channel 4 News, a move to exclude American authors from reading lists in the nation’s school system:

Michael Gove vs American literature

Program notes:

The Education Secretary Michael Gove had said he wanted to see more British authors studied. It’s meant Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill and Mockingbird’ and Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’ are now excluded.

Headlines: Elections, ejections, pols, pollution


We charge straight into today’s collections of headlines about politics, economics, and the environment — plus the latest episode of Fukushimapocalypse Now! — starting ewith a pathetic news from the Guardian

IMF chief says banks haven’t changed since financial crisis

  • Christine Lagarde tells London conference banking sector is still resisting reform and taking excessive risks

Christine Lagarde told an audience in London that six years on from the deep financial crisis that engulfed the global economy, banks were resisting reform and still too focused on excessive risk taking to secure their bonuses at the expense of public trust.

She said: “The behaviour of the financial sector has not changed fundamentally in a number of dimensions since the crisis. While some changes in behaviour are taking place, these are not deep or broad enough. The industry still prizes short-term profit over long-term prudence, today’s bonus over tomorrow’s relationship.

“Some prominent firms have even been mired in scandals that violate the most basic ethical norms – Libor and foreign exchange rigging, money laundering, illegal foreclosure.”

One indication of why things haven’t changed via Bloomberg News:

Ex-UBS Banker Lack Avoids Prison for 17-Year Tax Scheme

Martin Lack, the fourth ex-UBS AG (UBSN) banker to plead guilty to aiding wealthy Americans in evading taxes, avoided prison for a 17-year scheme in which he helped U.S. clients maintain secret overseas accounts.

Lack, a Swiss resident and citizen and an independent investment adviser, was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $7,500 today in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was indicted in 2011. He surrendered to U.S. authorities on Oct. 14 and pleaded guilty on Feb. 26, when the judge said he was cooperating with prosecutors.

“I apologize for my conduct,” Lack told U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas. “I was given an opportunity to make amends for what I’ve done, which I did to the best of my ability.”

Via the Contributor Network, reality catches up:

Without the Industry-Promised ‘Ocean of Black Gold,’ CA Senate Committee Approves Fracking Moratorium

In spite of the millions spent by Big Oil on lobbying in Sacramento every year, the California Senate Appropriations Committee voted 4 to 2 to approve a bill, SB 1132, to place a moratorium on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in the state.

SB 1132, authored by Senators Holly Mitchell and Mark Leno, now moves to a vote on the Senate floor. Senators Gaines and Walters voted against the bill while Senators De León, Padilla, Hill and Steinberg voted to advance the bill to the floor.

The bill moved forward the same week that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reduced its previous estimate of recoverable oil in California by 96 percent.

From the Associated Press, greed, baby, greed:

Top U.S. executives mark compensation milestone; median pay hits $10-million

Propelled by a soaring stock market, the median pay package for a CEO rose above eight figures for the first time last year. The head of a typical large public company earned a record $10.5-million, an increase of 8.8 per cent from $9.6-million in 2012, according to an Associated Press/Equilar pay study.

Last year was the fourth straight that CEO compensation rose following a decline during the Great Recession. The median CEO pay package climbed more than 50 per cent over that stretch. A chief executive now makes about 257 times the average worker’s salary, up sharply from 181 times in 2009.

The best paid CEO last year led an oilfield-services company. The highest paid female CEO was Carol Meyrowitz of discount retail giant TJX, owner of TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. And the head of Monster Beverage got a monster of a raise.

From the Los Angeles Times, no pot luck:

Health insurers just say no to marijuana coverage

Patients who use medical marijuana for pain and other chronic symptoms can take an unwanted hit: Insurers don’t cover the treatment, which costs as much as $1,000 a month.

Marijuana in recent years has gained increased mainstream acceptance for its ability to boost appetite, dull pain and reduce seizures in people with a wide range of disorders and diseases, including epilepsy and cancer.

Still, insurers are reluctant to cover it, in part because of conflicting laws. Although 21 U.S. states have approved it for medical use, the drug still is outlawed by the federal government and most states.

From BBC News, a bubble on the verge of deflation?:

US house price growth slows as demand weakens

US housing price growth slowed to just 0.2% in the first three months of 2014, latest figures show.

According to the S&P/Case-Shiller index, the slowdown in growth compared with the previous quarter was partly caused by tighter bank lending regulations. Further compounding the problem is rising student loan debt, which has discouraged first-time buyers.

Nationally, US home prices are still up 10.3%, compared with a year earlier.

And from the Associated Press, unquenchable thirst, no strings attached:

California’s flawed water system can’t track usage

Nearly 4,000 California companies, farms and others are allowed to use free water with little oversight when the state is so bone dry that deliveries to nearly everyone else have been severely slashed.

Their special status dates back to claims made more than a century ago when water was plentiful. But in the third year of a drought that has ravaged California, these “senior rights holders” dominated by corporations and agricultural concerns are not obliged to conserve water.

Nobody knows how much water they actually use, though it amounts to trillions of gallons each year, according to a review of their own reports by The Associated Press. Together, they hold more than half the rights to rivers and streams in California.

And from MintPress News, why are we not surprised?:

U.S. Investors, Government Policies Leading Global Land-Grabs

Massive land-grabs are driving commercial agriculture and investment around the world, often at the expense of the world’s small-scale farmers – who feed 80 percent of the developing world

The U.S. public and private sectors are among the leading drivers of a global drive to snap up usable – and often in-use – agricultural land, in what critics say remains a steadily increasing epidemic of “land-grabbing.”

Africa and Southeast Asia are together seeing some three-quarters of problematic large-scale land acquisitions, according to new research from the global development group ActionAid. Africa remains a particular focus of this investment drive, constituting six of the top 10 countries experiencing significant land-grabbing. The continent has seen at least 40 million hectares switch hands in recent years as part of large-scale sales or leases.

However, land speculation is currently affecting almost all continents. The report warns of particularly negative effects for the estimated 2.5 billion people worldwide that rely on small-scale agriculture to meet their families’ needs. And this impact is felt far more broadly, as those smallholders, a majority of whom are women, provide the food that feeds some four-fifths of the developing world, according to the United Nations.

North of the border with CBC News and those minimum wage blues:

Restaurant owners seek meeting with PM over foreign worker freeze

  • Restaurant industry asks for urgent meeting with PM over freeze on hiring temporary foreign workers

The group representing Canada’s restaurant owners wants an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss the freeze on temporary foreign workers in the restaurant industry.

Restaurants Canada, which represents restaurants, pubs and caterers, says the program freeze ordered by federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney is already affecting the industry.

Restaurants Canada says it will make a call for urgent action on what it calls a labour crisis due to the moratorium on temporary foreign workers.

On to Europe, and those electoral post mortems, first with a French accent from BBC News:

EU election: France’s Hollande calls for reform of ‘remote’ EU

French President Francois Hollande has said the EU must reform and scale back its power, amid a surge in support for Eurosceptic and far-right parties.

Mr Hollande, whose party was beaten by the far right in last week’s European Parliament election, said the EU had become too complex and remote.

In response, he will tell EU leaders at a meeting in Brussels later that they must focus on boosting the economy.

The Associated Press confers

EU summit seeks way out of election quagmire

Despite their clashing visions for Europe, Britain and France agreed Tuesday that the massive increase in protest votes during the European Union election is a watershed moment that must lead to profound change in how Europe governs itself.

Coming into an EU summit meeting, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the anti-EU vote had shown that Brussels had become “too big, too bossy, too interfering,” and needed to return many powers to its 28 member nations as soon as possible.

The EU leaders met to assess the rise of the far-right, Euroskeptic and anti-establishment parties that took almost 30 percent of the seats in the European Parliament in national elections that ended Sunday. The summit had the major challenge of figuring out how to deal with the grassroots revolt of people turning away from the parties that built the EU.

ANA-MPA agonizes:

Eurogroup head Dijsselbloem says a great deal ‘still needs to be done’

Trying to tell everyday people about economic achievements at state budget level is difficult, Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem told a conference on Europe at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance on Tuesday.

“Try to tell a Greek who is struggling to survive that Greece now has a primary surplus, something that for us at the Eurogroup constitutes a significant indicator. What does this say, however, to a citizen in Greece?,” Dijsselbloem said, adding that after the latest Euroelections “Europe is no longer something that is beyond doubt.”

He went on to add, “Try to tell a Spaniard who has lost his job that there is a small drop in unemployment in his country, or to an Irish whose house lost a quarter of its value that real estate prices have registered a slight increase.”

And the Amsterdam angle from DutchNews.nl:

EU should focus on added value, and choose new president, says Rutte

‘The voter wants fewer regulations and more work,’ is the conclusion of prime minister Mark Rutte following the success of fringe parties across Europe in the EU elections last week.

Rutte was speaking after a parliamentary debate on the meeting of European heads of state on Tuesday evening in Brussels, the Telegraaf reports.

‘The message to politicians in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe is that the EU should be involved in fewer matters,’ he said. ‘It should focus on where it can add value, for instance in creating jobs.’

And from Spiegel, a prescription:

German Finance Minister Schäuble: ‘Europe Needs More Self-Confidence’

What does Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst have to do with the Ukraine conflict? More than you might think, explains German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in a SPIEGEL interview. It demonstrates the EU’s greatest strengths.

On to Britain with the London Telegraph and a regal prescription:

Prince Charles: reform capitalism to save the planet

  • A “fundamental transformation of global capitalism” is needed in order to tackle climate change, the Prince of Wales has said

Prince Charles has called for an end to capitalism as we know it in order to save the planet from global warming.

In a speech to business leaders in London, the Prince said that a “fundamental transformation of global capitalism” was necessary in order to halt “dangerously accelerating climate change” that would “bring us to our own destruction”.

He called for companies to focus on “approaches that achieve lasting and meaningful returns” by protecting the environment, improving their employment practices and helping the vulnerable to develop a new “inclusive capitalism”.

From the London Telegraph again, a Goldman Sachs alum covers for his pals:

Jailing bankers will not fix bad behaviour, says Mark Carney

  • Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, says fundamental flaws in the industry can only be resolved by changing how markets operate

Jailing bankers for market manipulation or clawing back pay and bonuses will not be enough to curb future misbehaviour or restore public trust in the financial system, the Governor of the Bank of England has said.

Despite a new crackdown on reckless bankers, Mark Carney said fundamental flaws in the industry could only be resolved by changing how markets operate.

“Merely prosecuting the guilty to the full extent of the law will not be sufficient to address the issues raised,” Mr Carney said in a speech in London on Tuesday night.

And the not-so-surprising from the Guardian [although homophobia is down]:

Racism on the rise in Britain

The proportion of Britons who admit to being racially prejudiced has risen since the start of the millennium, raising concerns that growing hostility to immigrants and widespread Islamophobia are setting community relations back 20 years.

New data from NatCen’s authoritative British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, obtained by the Guardian, shows that after years of increasing tolerance, the percentage of people who describe themselves as prejudiced against those of other races has risen overall since 2001.

In an echo of the voting patterns of Ukip supporters in last week’s European elections, the figures paint a pattern of a nation geographically divided – with London reporting the lowest levels of racial prejudice. Older men in economically deprived areas are most likely to admit to racial prejudice.

Sweden next, and from TheLocal.se, the first hint of austerity to come:

Sweden’s labour costs ‘distressingly high’

Labour costs in Sweden are 22 percent higher than the eurozone average, a difference which threatens Swedish industries’ ability to compete, economists warned in a report on Tuesday.

Labour costs have been escalating in Sweden at a quicker pace than they have in the rest of western Europe and the eurozone, and the increasing strength of the krona has compounded the problem, a report by employer group Teknikföretagen stated on Tuesday.

“Swedish industries operate in a global market characterized by tough international competition,” Teknikföretagen economist Anders Rune wrote in the report.

Germany next, first with a power-up from the Japan Times:

Growing number of Germans opting for ‘homemade’ electricity

Of the about 600 terawatt hours Germany consumes each year, 50 twh are self-produced — about 8 percent of the total — in a trend that has seen solar panels installed on home roofs and gas plants set up in factories.

In industry, the share is around 20 percent, according to business and energy consumers’ groups. Their main goal: cost savings.

Homemade power in Germany is not taxed, unlike conventional electricity where one-third of the customer’s bill goes into the public coffers. Germany has among Europe’s highest electricity bills.

TheLocal.de gives a glimpse at life at the bottom:

One in five Germans can’t afford a holiday

More than 20 percent of Germans can’t afford a week’s holiday, and 30 percent said they were unable to cover “unexpected expenses” such as house repairs or big purchases, according to a study released on Tuesday.

The survey, from federal statistics office Destatis which gathered the data in 2012, asked participants whether they could afford to pay for a week away from home each year, and if they felt they could handle unexpected costs – essential purchases costing €940 or more.

It also found around eight percent of respondents felt they could not afford to eat a meal including meat, poultry or fish at least once every two days.

From TheLocal.de, outsider entrepreneurs:

Foreigners set up 40pc of new German firms

Germany is increasingly relying on foreigners to stir entrepreneurial spirit in the country, as the number of new companies being founded by Germans falls.

The number of foreign entrepreneurs setting up new companies in Germany has risen from 90,000 in 2005 to 145,000 last year, despite an overall fall in the number of people setting up on their own.

A study released on Monday by a think-tank for medium-sized business, Institute für Mittelstandsforschung (IfM), showed three-quarters of new foreign-founded companies were in the construction (45 percent), trade (18.2 percent) and hospitality (10.2 percent).

On to Amsterdam, and a real pisser from DutchNews.nl:

Waste water analysis reveals Dutch drug secrets in EU survey

People in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Eindhoven are major users of drugs when compared to other European cities, according to a new analysis of waste water by the EU’s drugs agency Emcdda.

The agency analysed waste water in 42 cities in 21 countries looking for drug residues. The three Dutch cities occupied first, second and third place in terms of the use of party drug ecstasy and ‘abnormal amounts’ were identified in Eindhoven’s waste water, news agency ANP said.

This may be explained by the fact the production of ecstasy is concentrated in the region and that chemicals are dumped into the drains, the organisation said. The quantity of amphetamine found in Eindhoven water was also extremely high.

In terms of cannabis use, Amsterdam comes in second place, behind Novia Sad in Serbia. Eindhoven is seventh and Utrecht 13th.

Brussels next, and a quandary from EUobserver:

Belgian king gives coalition-forming mandate to Flemish republican

  • Will the man who wants the end of Belgium be the next Belgian prime minister? In a land where absurdity is a form of art, it’s not impossible.

King Philippe on Tuesday (27 May) asked N-VA chairman Bart De Wever to “inform” him about possible coalition governments, a first step to forming such a government.

On Sunday Belgians not only voted for the EU Parliament, but also for the national and regional parliaments. Belgium is a highly decentralised country, with powerful regional governments. On the Flemish (northern) side, there’s a strong demand to make those regions even stronger.

The hardliners simply want to split Belgium, although nobody knows how to do that with the bilingual – and very rich and important – Brussels right in the middle of the country.

The winner of the elections is the devolution-minded N-VA. Until a few years ago, it was a small party of hardline Flemish separatists. Thanks to the immense popularity of party leader Bart De Wever, the party took about 32 percent of the votes in Flanders at the weekend. This makes it by far the biggest party in Belgium.

Austria next, with post-electoral blues from TheLocal.at:

SPÖ row after attack on chancellor

A row has broken out among Austria’s Social Democrats (SPÖ) after the party failed to emerge as the winner among Austrian parties in Sunday’s European Parliament elections.

A member of Burgenland’s regional government, Peter Rezar, has launched an attack on Chancellor Werner Faymann – and provoked a storm of protest from the SPÖ’s top politicians.

The conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) won Sunday’s vote with 27 percent, ahead of its ruling partners the SPÖ at 24 percent.

On to France, with aspirations from Spiegel:

A Real National Front: The French Far Right Aims High

  • After its triumph in European elections on Sunday, the French far-right Front National is hoping to increase its power back home, with Marine Le Pen aiming for the presidency in 2017. With François Hollande’s popularity plummeting, it is not out of the question.

After pulling in a triumphant 25 percent of the vote, the Front National will now have the largest number of seats of any French political party in the European Parliament. Marine Le Pen has every intention of using the party’s presence at parliament’s headquarters in Strasbourg and Brussels for political gain. Some within the far-right in France are already considering their political futures — all the way up to the presidential palace in Paris.

The first step in the “long march,” as Marine Le Pen has termed it, is the creation of a party group in the European Parliament comprised of skeptics of the euro common currency, EU opponents and the far-right or right-wing populists. Doing so would provide the parties with greater access to money and key posts and would also raise their profile. To create a group, at least 25 members of parliament from seven different EU member states must join together in a bloc. Given the divergent ideologies on Europe’s right wing, that won’t be an easy task.

The only true support Le Pen can count on is from the Austrian right-wing Freedom Party. Right-wing populist parties in Belgium and the Netherlands failed to deliver on Sunday, managing only disappointing results. Meanwhile, radical political forces in Denmark and Britain have said they will not join an alliance with the Front National.

Partnering up with the Guardian:

Marine Le Pen to meet other far-right leaders in move to create EU bloc

  • Front National leader rules out joining forces with extreme-right parties Golden Dawn, Jobbik and Ataka

France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen will meet other far-right and eurosceptic leaders on Wednesday in an attempt to create a powerful bloc in the European parliament.

However, Le Pen ruled out joining forces with the extreme-right Golden Dawn in Greece, the Hungarian party Jobbik or Ataka in Bulgaria.

Having spent years trying to shake off the FN’s reputation as a refuge for Nazi sympathisers – her father, the party’s founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, once dismissed the Holocaust as a “detail” – Le Pen said she did not envisage meeting newly elected German MEP Udo Voigt of the neo-Nazi NPD.

And a branding problem from EUbusiness:

Germany’s Schaeuble terms France’s far-right FN ‘fascist’

Germany’s finance minister on Tuesday described France’s far-right National Front (FN), which came out on top in France’s weekend vote for a new European Parliament, as a “fascist” party.

Wolfgang Schaeuble told a forum on Europe that the outcome in Europe’s second biggest economy was a vote “not for a right-wing party but for a fascist party”.

The result is a reality check “for everyone in Europe, not only for our friends in France”, Schaeuble, a veteran and strongly pro-EU member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, added.

And while the far right has smooth sailing, not so for the traditonal right, as the London Telegraph reports:

Crisis for France’s Right as Sarkozy party head quits over funding scandal

  • Jean-François Copé, leaders of UMP party, to step down over allegations a company run by friends signed off €10 million of “false invoices” to bankroll Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed 2012 election bid

The head of France’s main conservative opposition party is to step down after a scandal over funding for Nicolas Sarkozy’s failed attempt to win the presidency in 2012.

Jean-François Copé, leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), agreed to leave his post by June 15. Mr Cope’s position was already weakened after the UMP was beaten into second place in Sunday’s European Parliament elections by the Front National (FN).

The revelations cast a shadow over Mr Sarkozy’s chances of mounting a comeback in 2017. He is said to be “furious” and to feel “betrayed”, but none the less is likely to face questions over claims that more than €10 million (£8.1 million) of “false invoices” for his 2012 re-election campaign were billed as party expenses.

Of to Spain and a papal slapdown from TheLocal.es:

Pope slams ‘inhumane’ jobless rate in Spain

Pope Francis on Tuesday criticized an “inhumane” system which causes a youth unemployment rate of “50 percent” in Spain and “60 percent” in Andalusia in the wake of recent European elections.

Speaking during a press conference on his return from a trip to Middle East, the pope admitted he hadn’t had time to follow the European elections.

He also owned up to not being fully up to speed on issues like populism and the confidence, or lack of confidence in the Euro. But Pope Francis said he did understand words like “unemployment”.

“We are living under a world economic system that has money at its centre, and not human beings. This system, to maintain itself excludes (people),” the Pope was quoted as saying by Italy’s La Stampa.

But the IMF wants more Spanish misery, with higher taxes for the pooir and lower corporate taxes. From El País:

IMF calls on Spain to raise VAT and lower corporate taxes

  • Other measures recommended by local mission include tax pardons for struggling companies

Higher consumer taxes, lower corporate rates and few changes to income tax. Those were the proposals for the Spanish economy presented by the International Monetary Fund in Madrid on Tuesday, in the latest report issued by its mission in the country.

“There is room for increasing indirect revenues,” the report reads. “Raising excise duties and environmental levies, and gradually reducing preferential treatments in the VAT, would bring Spain’s collection effort more in to line with its European peers. This should be combined with clearly identified measures to protect the most vulnerable.

“There is scope for gradually cutting corporate income tax rates to promote growth (though not to 20 percent, which is below the EU average),” the report continues. “However, given the imperative to sustain revenues and preserve progressivity, there is less scope for significantly cutting top personal income tax rates.”

An electoral outside from the Spanish prede cessor of the Occupy movement wins election, via TheLocal.es:

‘Hippy’ politician stuns Spain’s political elite

Some see him as a ponytailed Fidel Castro, others think he’s the only honest politician Spain has had in decades. Either way, Pablo Iglesias is on everyone’s lips after he helped his poorly-funded, three-month-old party reach fourth place in the European Elections.

Rest assured, you’re not alone. Had Iglesias’ party Podemos (We Can) not won five seats in Brussels he may have remained a household name only in Spain. But their 1.2 million votes on Sunday have made the news across Europe and further afield, with Iglesias at the centre of all the intrigue.

How did they manage to do so well?

Perhaps the most crucial factor is the massive drop in support for Spain’s ruling conservative Popular Party (PP) and their socialist opponents PSOE. Both have been embroiled in corruption scandals and, when handed the reins of power by the country’s disillusioned population, they’ve seemed equally unable to solve the grave issue of unemployment and poor economic performance.

The other significant cause is Pablo Iglesias himself and how he has come to represent the educated but disgruntled youth who took part in Spain’s Real Democracy Now protest, popularly known as the 15-M, which gained worldwide coverage when thousands of young people camped out in Madrid’s iconic Puerta del Sol for months in 2011.

More from El País:

Podemos: A party under construction

  • The surprise success story at Sunday’s elections has its roots in the 15-M protest movement
  • With an undefined structure, the group must now get organized to hold its eurodeputies accountable

For now at least, the party has no leadership bodies and no membership cards. Yet it will have five seats in the European Parliament after receiving 1.2 million votes at Sunday’s poll.

As of Monday, Podemos is facing the new challenge of organizing itself and creating a leadership that will make day-to-day decisions and hold its five eurodeputies accountable. This is especially important because if Sunday’s results are repeated in Spanish general elections in 2015, Podemos could hold the key to local and regional governments. And it will have to make decisions.

“We were practically born on the campaign trail. To this day, we are a campaign team rather than a party proper. Now we need to begin a constitutional process,” says Íñigo Errejón, 30, who has a PhD in political science from Madrid’s Complutense University and acts as campaign director for Podemos.

And TheLocal.es evicts:

Protesters clash with police over squat eviction

Police clashed with protesters who burned bins and vehicles in Barcelona on Monday as anger boiled over at the eviction of activists from a well-known squat.

Officers made several arrests as hooded youths smashed windows and hurled stones at police and journalists in the streets of the north-eastern city.

Police had earlier evicted occupants who had chained themselves down inside the “Can Vies”, a building owned by the local transport authority but occupied since 1997 by activists who have used it as a community centre.

Italy next, and advice for a sourpuss from TheLocal.it:

Spin doctor tells ex-comedian Grillo to smile

A strategist for Italy’s Eurosceptic Five Star Movement (M5S) has told the party’s leader, Beppe Grillo, that he needs to smile more after the organization was outstripped in the European Elections.

Gianroberto Casaleggio, the founder of the Milan-based Casaleggio and Associates and a driving force behind the party’s successes, told the former comedian that he needs to “tone down” his aggression during a post-mortem of the party’s election performance on Monday.

“You have to force yourself to smile; we must smile more,” the advisor was quoted in Corriere della Sera as saying.

After the jump, the latest from Greece [including stunning support for neo-Nazis by Greek police], more Ukrainian struggles, an election extension in an apathetic Egyptian contest, more Libyan turmoil, an Indian electoral reminder, the tightening Thai coup, mixed economic signals from China, toxins, fires, and other environmental agonies, and the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .
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Headlines: Beaucoup elections, and lots more


Whole lotta ground to cover, with elections — and their aftermaths — on three continents, plus the latest economic and ecological headlines and the latest edition of Fukushimapocalypse Now!

On with the show, starting with a trans-Pacific partnership of another sort from China Daily:

Children from China enroll in US summer academic camps

Summer is near, and that means that many Chinese parents will be sending their children to summer camps in the US for an academic performance boost.

Michelle Raz, the director of the Longfeifei Youth Summer Academy in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, said that Chinese parents are keen on “rounding out their kids’ experiences”, so they are enrolling them in programs like Longfeifei’s, which has an academic portion but also gives children time to learn about the arts and to participate in athletic activities.

“What the children have told me is that schools in China been very limited in sports and arts, where they are coming from,” Raz told China Daily. “Few of them have some experiences but the vast majority haven’t, so we’re teaching them American games and things like soccer.”

And more standardized testing from Washington, this time with ivy coverings, via the New York Times:

Colleges Rattled as Obama Seeks Rating System

The college presidents were appalled. Not only had President Obama called for a government rating system for their schools, but now one of his top education officials was actually suggesting it would be as easy as evaluating a kitchen appliance.

“It’s like rating a blender,” Jamienne Studley, a deputy under secretary at the Education Department, said to the college presidents after a meeting in the department’s Washington headquarters in November, according to several who were present. “This is not so hard to get your mind around.”

The rating system is in fact a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons. For years that task has been dominated by private companies like Barron’s and U.S. News & World Report.

Next up, more neoliberalism north of the border with the Toronto Globe and Mail:

Ottawa approved thousands of foreign worker requests at minimum wage, data reveal

The federal government approved thousands of requests to bring in temporary foreign workers at minimum wage in recent years, a practice that undermines claims from government and employers that there are serious labour shortages and that all efforts have been taken to hire Canadians.

The revelations in newly released data come as the Conservative government is weighing major policy reforms – including a new “wage floor” – in response to criticism that employers are relying on the temporary foreign worker program as a way to avoid raising wages.

Using Access to Information legislation, the Alberta Federation of Labour obtained extensive statistics about the program and provided its findings to The Globe and Mail. The union sought and obtained information on the number of Labour Market Opinions approved by Employment and Social Development Canada that were for minimum wage jobs. An LMO is a screening process meant to ensure employers have exhausted efforts to hire Canadians before turning to the program.

On to Europe, first with a hint of things to come from the Portugal News:

‘Risk of deflation’ – ECB president

The president of the European Central Bank (ECB) said on Monday that inflation was going to stay low for a prolonged period of time and that “there is a risk” of deflation, adding there was “no question” the objective of the institution was to control price changes.

“At the moment, our expectation is that the low inflation is going to remain with us, but that it will gradually return to the 2% level. However, our responsibility is to be aware of any risks that might arise and be prepared to act is necessary”, Mario Draghi said.

The ECB president was giving a speech opening Monday’s works at the ‘ECB Forum on Central Banking’, organised by the ECB in Sintra and which began on Sunday and is to continue until Tuesday.

And our first electoral story, via EUbusiness:

Europe’s leaders urge EU reform after eurosceptic poll wins

France’s President Francois Hollande Monday called for reining in Brussels’ power after eurosceptic and far-right parties scored stunning success in EU polls, sending shock waves through the continent’s political landscape.

“Earthquake” in Europe, read the headlines after European parliamentary elections ended Sunday, summing up a day of trauma for establishment parties and the accepted consensus that the European Union offers the best future for all.

Hollande went on national television to call for the EU to reduce its role which he said had become for many citizens “remote and incomprehensible”.

More from United Press International:

European Parliament election results illustrate growing dismay with economic austerity measures

The European parliamentary election results are in. While pro-EU parties are expected to retain the majority of the 751 seats in the new legislature, so-called Euroskeptic parties who oppose the EU made significant gains.

According to European politics expert Simon Usherwood, who spoke to CNN about the election results, “They don’t have enough votes to stop legislation going through but what they will get particularly on the far right, is the time for speaking in debates, the chairmanship of certain committees, which means that they’re going to have much more of a platform on which they can sell their message to voters.”

And ominous new additions from EUbusiness:

European Parliament set to usher in first neo-Nazis

Though no stranger to controversy or diatribe, the European Parliament is set to usher in its first fully-fledged neo-Nazis members, from Germany and Greece.

With around 300,000 votes at Sunday’s European elections the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) is expected to claim one of the country’s 96 seats in the new Parliament, in a historical ground-breaker.

A recent change in German electoral laws, scrapping all minimum thresholds, paved the way for the march into parliament of the NPD, which has 6,000 members. It describes itself as “national socialist,” just like Germany’s Nazis in the 1930s, and is openly xenophobic and anti-semitic so a group of German regional governments have tried to have it banned for propagating racism.

EurActiv looks on the bright side:

Europe on course for ‘grand coalition’ after election

Despite a rise in anti-European parties, political balances remained broadly unchanged in the European Parliament following the elections yesterday, with the centre-right and centre-left parties on track for a grand coalition.

The centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) won 212 seats in the European parliament, followed by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), with 186 seats (out of 751). In the last European election, the EPP won 265 seats and the S&D 184. The Parliament was slightly larger at the time, counting a total of 766 seats.

This is the fourth consecutive victory for the EPP since the 1999 election and another disappointment for the Socialists, who failed to reverse the balance of power in Parliament, despite the popular resentment over austerity.

A different take from EUobserver:

New EP will struggle to find majorities

It will take days if not weeks for the political dust to settle after the EU vote but it is already clear that the new European Parliament will need to work harder to find majorities with discussions on issues such as migration and free trade deals set to become more polarised.

While the centre-right EPP gained the most seats in the EU vote, it lost around sixty seats compared to 2009, while the centre-left S&D came second, but did less well than expected. Together the two parties hold a majority (403) in the 751-strong EP, under current group projections, but it is a slim majority (54%).

“That means that in areas where only the S&D and the EPP agree, that will not be enough, they will have to get votes from some other places,” said VoteWatch’s Doru Frantescu at a post-election analysis on Monday (26 May).

On to Britain, and exuberance from an EU foe from Sky News:

Nigel Farage: ‘My Dream Has Become Reality’

  • UKIP’s leader likens the main parties to goldfish out of water “desperately gasping for air”, after his Euro election victory.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said his “dream” of “causing an earthquake in British politics” has come true.

Mr Farage was speaking at a press conference after UKIP’s first win in a national election – the first time in more than 100 years a party other than Labour or the Conservatives has finished top.

He described the “legacy parties” as “like goldfish that have just been tipped out of the bowl onto the floor, desperately gasping for air and clinging on to the comfort blanket that this is a protest vote”.

The Guardian hears from Boris the Bloviator, the neocon’s friend:

Boris Johnson: Eurosceptic success due to ‘peasants’ revolt’

  • London mayor says European election results are expression of revulsion and a signal for the EU to change or die

Boris Johnson has described Ukip voters as peasants in revolt after Eurosceptic parties swept to victory across the union.

The London mayor painted a scene of “pitchfork-wielding populists” converging on Brussels “drunk on local hooch and chanting nationalist slogans and preparing to give the federalist machinery a good old kicking with their authentically folkloric clogs”.

Writing in the Telegraph, he compared Eurosceptic parties, including Ukip, Dutch rightwing firebrands and Greek anti-capitalists, to people taking part in “a kind of peasants’ revolt” or a “jacquerie” – a bloody uprising against the French nobility in 1358.

From the Independent, a loser struggles:

European elections 2014: Nick Clegg faces fight for survival after Lib Dems’ Euro disaster

Local Liberal Democrat party activists begin calling emergency meetings to force leadership contest as triumphant Nigel Farage predicts Ukip will hold balance of power at next year’s general election

Nick Clegg failed to quell a grassroots revolt by Liberal Democrat activists on Monday night as they stepped up an attempt to oust him following the party’s disastrous performance in the European elections.

After the Deputy Prime Minister refused to fall on his sword, The Independent learnt that activists had begun to call emergency meetings of local parties across the country in order to force a leadership election. They require the backing of 75 parties to trigger a contest.

Ditto from Sky News:

EU Must Reform For Jobs And Growth – Cameron

  • The Prime Minister tells fellow EU leaders they must reform the 28-nation bloc in the wake of successes for eurosceptic parties.

David Cameron has called fellow European leaders and urged them to “seize the opportunity” for reform on jobs and growth following the European Elections.

In a series of phone calls the Prime Minister urged them to “heed the views expressed at the ballot box” over recent days.

His intervention came ahead of today’s Informal European Council dinner in Brussels, where leaders are expected to discuss the results of the European poll.

Meanwhile, the austerians can proclaim another kind of victory, via the Independent:

‘If the NHS were an airline planes would fall out of the sky all the time’ says Mid Staffs inquiry chairman

Standards across the NHS have become so poor that if the health service were an airline “planes would fall out of the sky all the time”, the chairman of the inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS scandal has warned.

Robert Francis QC said the public had been given a falsely positive impression about the quality of care being provided in many of the country’s hospitals.

Mr Francis told The Telegraph: “If we ran our airlines industry on the same basis, planes would be falling out of the sky all the time. We’ve got to change the attitude that because it’s provided by the state, it’s all right for a number of people to be treated badly; well it’s not. Airlines would go out of business very quickly if they worked that way.”

Ireland next, and a win for the left from Bloomberg:

Sinn Fein Surges in Ireland as Voters Punish Austerity

Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, became the biggest party in Dublin city as voters punished the ruling coalition for three years of austerity amid a rise in protest votes across Europe.

The party has more members of Dublin City Council than any other after municipal elections on Friday and topped the Irish capital’s poll for a European Parliament seat. Support for Sinn Fein and other anti-austerity groups swelled across Ireland as they grabbed seats from government parties.

“It’s a profound change in the political landscape,” Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said in an interview posted on the Irish Independent’s website, adding the party is at its strongest in almost a century. “The government will think it can dismiss this as a bit of a scolding by the electorate, but it’s bigger and deeper than that.”

One response from Independent.ie:

Eamon Gilmore resigns as leader of Labour Party

EAMON Gilmore has warned against the Labour pulling out of government following his dramatic decision to resign as party leader.

Mr Gilmore said he “agonised” over the decision to step down which was made just hours before eight members of the Labour Parliamentary party tabled a vote of no confidence.

A new Labour leader will be put in place on July 4 following a postal ballot of all party members.

On to Iceland, and an odd election issue from the Reykjavík Grapevine:

Mayoral Candidates Speak Out On Mosque Issue

In the wake of recent remarks from a mayoral candidate that she would revoke a plot of land the city of Reykjavík granted for building a mosque, numerous mayoral candidates have expressed their disagreement with this sentiment.

Vísir spoke with other candidates running for mayor, to get their reactions to recent remarks made by Progressive Party mayoral candidate Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, who said last week that if elected mayor, she would reverse a city council decision made in January 2013 to grant Iceland’s Muslim population a plot of land on which to build a mosque.

“This is a desperate way to get votes during the last days before elections,” said Social Democrat mayoral candidate Dagur B. Eggertsson. “You don’t run a city by discriminating against people based on their religious beliefs.”

Sweden next, and harumphing from TheLocal.se:

‘Nationalists threaten EU openness’: Malmström

Sweden has in total fewer seats in Strasbourg than the French National Front does, and the upswing of nationalist parties worries Sweden’s European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström.

“They’re scary,” Malmström said about the rise of nationalist, extreme-right, and xenophobic parties in the European parliament elections over the weekend.

“What worries me is that their rhetoric has infected other parties.That means it could be difficult henceforth to make decisions on everything from labour migration, taking more responsibility for refugees… it won’t be easier after this.”

On to Norway, and a deal nearly done from TheLocal.no:

Rosneft to buy stake in Norway drill company

Russian state oil giant Rosneft could buy a major stake North Atlantic Drilling, a subsidiary of Norway’s Seadrill, in a deal which would give the company access to the lucrative Russian drilling market.

Norwegian shipping tycoon John Fredriksen announced the deal, which will see Rosneft book “a significant portion” of the company’s idle rigs, at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on Saturday.

“We have sought to access the growth opportunity represented by the Russian market for several years,” NADL chief executive Alf Ragnar Lovdal, said in a statement.  “After the closing of this transaction, will have created a powerful force in the Russian market and for the Arctic region.”

On to Copenhagen and more right wing triumphs via EurActiv:

Danish far right party wins in EU elections, doubles mandate

The far-right Eurosceptic Danish People’s Party has won 26.7% of the votes and becoming by far the biggest Danish party in the Parliament with four seats. The party has doubled its mandates since 2009.

Meanwhile, the two biggest parties in the Danish parliament, the Social Democrats (at 19.1%) and the Liberals (16.7%) both had poor showings, each losing a seat, leaving them at three and two seats, respectively. The Greens lost one seat, while the Conservatives, the Social Liberals and a left-wing Eurosceptic party together make up Denmark’s 13 mandates.

The Danish People’s Party has looked to Britain’s UKIP for inspiration, calling for less EU influence over Danish matters, an end to ‘benefits tourism’ and tougher border controls. After Sunday, UKIP, the Danish People’s Party and France’s National Front are the three most successful eurosceptic parties in this Parliament election. But the three parties are unlikely to work together in the same group, as the Danish People’s Party has decided to seek influence via the European Conservatives and Reformists’ group of Tory MEPs.

Germany next, with a qualified win for the Iron Chancellor via TheLocal.de:

Merkel’s party tops vote but loses ground

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives came out ahead in European Parliament elections, official results showed on Monday, but a neo-Nazi party also won a seat in Brussels, echoing far-right gains elsewhere.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party the CSU – a team that last September celebrated a landslide win at the national level – between them secured 35.3 percent of votes cast.

The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), won 300,000 votes, one percent of the total, and so wins its first seat in the 751-member European parliament.

Another winner from EUbusiness:

German’s anti-euro professor Bernd Lucke scores in EU polls

Bernd Lucke, an economics professor with boyish looks, seems an unlikely revolutionary, but in little over a year he has led his German anti-euro party from the political wilderness straight into the European parliament.

Lucke’s small Alternative for Germany (AfD) party demands nothing less than Germany’s return to its once beloved Deutschmark, an end to EU bailouts and the orderly dissolution of the euro common currency.

Like populist leaders elsewhere in Europe, Lucke wants to repatriate many powers from Brussels to the national level, although he doesn’t want to scrap the EU itself — a stance summed up in the vague campaign motto “Have Courage to Be Germany”.

And a predictable reaction from EUbusiness:

German Jews shocked at far right’s EU success

The leader of Germany’s Jewish community Monday denounced gains made by far-right parties in EU-wide elections and urged democratic forces to block their path and defend European values.

Dieter Graumann, the president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said the extremist parties performed “shockingly well”, as feared, in Sunday’s European parliamentary vote.

He pointed to France, Hungary and Greece, saying in a statement: “Right-wing MPs are now coming into the European Parliament from all over Europe in order to implement their anti-European and extremist course.”

“Democratic parties are now called on to curb this way of thinking and to defend and maintain European values,” Graumann said.

More of the same from TheLocal.de:

Steinmeier ‘horrified’ at far-right seat win

Germany’s foreign minister said on Monday he was horrified that the neo-Nazi party, the NPD, had won a seat in the European Parliament. Jewish leaders and Chancellor Angela Merkel also voiced concern about the rise of the far right.

“There is no doubt that many populist, eurosceptic and even nationalistic parties are entering the European Parliament,” Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, speaking on NTV television.

“In some countries it won’t be as bad as had been feared, for example in the Netherlands, but France’s National Front is a severe signal, and it horrifies me that the NPD from Germany will be represented in the parliament,” he said, referring to the extremist anti-immigrant National Democratic Party of Germany.

From Deutsche Welle, a reminder:

Audi comes clean about its Nazi past

A historical probe commissioned by the German car maker Audi revealed Monday that the company’s predecessor exploited thousands of slave laborers under the Nazi dictatorship.

German car maker Audi unveiled a dark chapter in its history on Monday, saying its predecessor company had exploited slave labor under the Nazi regime on a massive scale.

A historical investigation commissioned by the company found that thousands of concentration camp inmates had been forced to work for Auto Union, an automobile manufacturer founded in 1932 and a forerunner company of today’s Audi AG .

Audi is the last major German car company, after Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler, to come clean about its Nazi-era history, and the study marked a clear push to be more transparent about that past.

On to Brussels and a post-election quit from euronews:

Belgian PM hands in resignation after defeat in elections

Belgium’s Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo has handed his government’s resignation to the King. It comes after this weekend’s general election which saw his Socialist party defeated.

The palace confirmed that King Philip had accepted the resignation and that the government would continue in its job until a new one was sworn in.

The Flemish separatist party N-VA won 32 percent of the vote, while the Socialists managed 30 percent. The NVA wants to dissolve Belgium and have it become a confederation of regional governments divided along linguistic lines.

On to France and explanation of sorts from TheLocal.fr:

‘We’re not racist, just angry’ say French voters

The historic victory for the far-right National Front party does not mean France is a country full of racists, voters told The Local on Monday. Rather people are simply seething with anger at the main political parties’ inability to fix the economy.

There were no anti-National Front demonstrations on Monday morning in the heart of Paris, the day after the anti-EU, anti-immigrant party took first place in the European Parliament elections in France.

In fact voters shrugged their shoulders in typical Gallic fashion and told The Local they were not surprised the party had won 25 percent of the vote, beating the centre-right UMP and the Socialists by wide margins.

Predictable panic from Europe Online:

Hollande holds crisis talks on far-right win in European elections

French President Francois Hollande convened a crisis meeting Monday with several cabinet ministers to discuss the victory of the far-right National Front (FN) – and trouncing of his Socialists – in the European elections.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Finance Minister Michel Sapin were among the ministers who huddled with Hollande to discuss how to proceed after the FN became France’s biggest party in Europe.

Provisional results showed Marine Le Pen’s anti-Europe FN winning 26 per cent of Sunday’s vote, a four-fold increase on its take in the last European election in 2009.

And a pickle for a predecessor from TheLocal.fr:

Cops grill Sarkozy ally over €400m state payout

A right-hand man to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was detained for questioning on Monday over his role in a highly controversial state payout to disgraced former tycoon Bernard Tapie.

Claude Gueant, a former interior minister who also served as Sarkozy’s chief of staff, was placed in custody after he arrived at the headquarters of France’s fraud squad to clarify his role in the €400 million($557-million) payout to Tapie in 2008.

The payment was connected to a dispute between the businessman and partly state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais over his 1993 sale of sportswear group Adidas.

Next, Austria, and more electoral results from TheLocal.at:

EU Election: ÖVP defends first place

Austria’s conservative ÖVP (People’s Party) has emerged the winner in Sunday’s European elections, in spite of slight losses compared to its result in the 2009 elections.

According to preliminary results the ÖVP won 27.3 percent of the vote.  The SPÖ received 23.8 percent, almost unchanged in second place.

Both the right wing, eurosceptic FPÖ (Freedom Party), and the Grüne (Greens) made strong gains, coming in at third and fourth place respectively, with 19.5 percent and 15.1 percent.

The FPÖ made gains of 6.8 percent and will double its seats in the European Parliament – with four instead of two representatives.

Off to Poland with New Europe:

Poland’s ruling party, opposition share seats in European Parliament

Poland’s ruling Civic Platform (PO) and opposition Law and Justice (PIS) parties each took 19 seats in the European parliament after the European elections Sunday, according to preliminary results.

PO secured 31.29 percent and PIS 32.35 percent in voting in Poland. Social Democrats, New Right and Polish Peasant’s Party won five seats, four seats and four seats respectively, according to results from 91 percent of the polling stations in the country.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said Sunday a low turnout in European Parliament elections “is a problem not only in Poland, but I would like to see a time when everyone … sees voting as something positive.”

Hungary next, via EUobserver:

Hungarian PM breaks ranks on Juncker

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said he will not support Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid to become president of the European Commission even if the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) wins the European elections.

Orban is the first EPP leader to publicly break ranks on the issue.

“We don’t think he should lead the Commission,” Orban said in an interview with Hir TV on the eve of the election.

The EPP supported Orban’s ruling Fidesz party when the government was under criticism over questions of rule of law, media freedom and constitutional changes. Orban said “there is no way” he would vote for Juncker.

Next, Romania, via EUbusiness:

Ruling Social Democrats win Romania EU vote: official results

Romania’s ruling left-wing alliance led by the Social Democrats won 37.6 percent of the vote in European parliamentary elections, official results showed Monday.

Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s PSD won 16 seats according to official data issued after 99.99 percent of Sunday’s ballots had been counted.

The EU’s second-poorest country since joining the bloc in 2007, Romania will send 32 legislators to the European Parliament. The opposition National Liberal Party came second with around 15 percent of the vote, giving them six seats.

Portugal next, with EurActiv:

Socialists win in Portugal, stay second in Spain

Portugal’s main opposition Socialists won elections for the European Parliament yesterday in an austerity-weary country which earlier this month exited an international bailout. In Spain, the opposition Socialists came second, but both centre-left and centre-right lost support compared to 2009.

With more than 99% of the vote counted, the centre-left Socialists had won with 31.45% of the ballot that was marked by high abstention levels at over 66%.

The ruling coalition of Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s Social Democrats and their smaller rightist partner CDS-PP that implemented painful cuts over the three years of bailout, garnered 27.7%.

It was followed by the Communist-Greens alliance, with 12.7% and the agrarian-environmentalist Partido da Terra (Party of the Earth), which built its campaign on disillusionment with traditional political parties.

El País takes us to Spain:

Spain’s two-party system dealt major blow in EU elections

  • Popular Party (PP) and the Socialists (PSOE) fail to attract even 50 percent of the vote
  • But xenophobe and anti-European parties fail to make any headway in Spanish polls

Spain’s two main parties, which have been taking turns in power since 1977, obtained their worst results in democratic history at the European elections on Sunday.

Together, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) failed to attract even 50 percent of the vote, compared with the 80 percent they garnered at the 2009 EU elections.

This massive loss of support reflects the rapid rise of smaller parties that portray the two main players as being similarly corrupt, beholden to money and unable to effectively deal with the economic crisis.

El País again, with another resignation:

Socialist leader throws in the towel after poor showing at European elections

  • Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba calls extraordinary party meeting in July to choose new leadership

Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba and his team have decided to throw in the towel. In the wake of the Socialist Party’s (PSOE) poor showing at Sunday’s European elections, the leader of the main opposition group in Spain’s Congress has called an extraordinary party meeting for July 19 and 20. The order of the day will be choosing a new general secretary, given Rubalcaba’s decision to bow out.

“The meeting will serve for us to choose new leadership for the party,” he told the press on Monday. “I am assuming my responsibility for the results.”

Rubalcaba described Sunday’s election results – which saw the PSOE take just 14 seats, with 23.03 percent of the vote – as “bad, with no palliatives.” The Popular Party (PP), which is currently in power in Spain, took 16 seats (26.04 percent) at a poll that saw the two main parties secure their worst results in democratic history.

And El País one more time, with a symbolic result:

Town with controversial “Killjews” name votes in favor of change

  • Burgos municipality will become “Little Fort on Jew Hill” following local referendum

The end has come for Castrillo Matajudíos, the small village in Burgos province that gained global notoriety after announcing it would hold a referendum on May 25 to consider a name change from the current “Little Hill-Fort of Jew Killers.”

“Everyone is watching expectantly to see what we will do: in Italy, in New York…” said Mayor Lorenzo Rodríguez a few days before the vote, which was made to coincide with elections to the European Parliament.

The uncertainty came to an end at 8pm on Sunday, when the vote count showed a majority support for changing the village’s name to Castrillo de Mota de Judíos, or Little Hill-Fort on Jew Hill. “Mota” means hill or mound in Spanish, and the mayor has posited that this was probably the community’s original name before a spelling mistake on an official document changed it to Matajudíos in 1623.

Off to Italy and a market response from TheLocal.it:

Italian stocks surge after Renzi’s EU victory

Italian stocks rocketed up 3.61 percent on Monday after Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party swept to victory in the European Elections, claiming 40.8 percent against of the vote against 21.2 percent for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and 16.8 percent for disgraced former leader Silvio Berlusconi.

The victory will give Renzi’s centre-left party a leading voice in Europe and bolster his ambitious reform programme.

The landslide gives the party the highest number of MEPs among Europe’s leftists and was one of the best showings for any European leader – a far higher result than the 25.4 percent it scored in a 2013 general election.

Cheering up also-rans with ANSA:

Grillo tells M5S supporters not to lose heart

  • Leader tells supporters M5S opposition will do more

Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S), urged his followers Monday to not lose heart despite the political party’s failure to do as well as it expected in the European elections that ended Sunday.

“Do not be discouraged, (I am) confident that we can move forward,” said Grillo, whose party won 21.16% of votes, in second place behind the ruling Democratic Party (PD) with 40.81%.

The M5S will make its mark as a strong opposition force that will demand positive changes to Italy, added Grillo in comments posted on his blog, one of his favoured methods of communication.

ANSA again, with more also-rans:

Berlusconi says FI remains ‘linchpin’ despite poor result

  • Ex-premier says his ‘guiding star’ is uniting moderates

Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi said Monday that his Forza Italia (FI) is the linchpin of the centre right and a “decisive partner” of the Italian government despite placing third in European Parliament elections. Premier Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) took almost 41% of Sunday’s vote while FI captured less than 17%. Comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment, Euroskeptic 5-Star Movement (M5S) took 21.16%.

Berlusconi was unable to stand or even vote in the election after being ejected from parliament following a binding tax-fraud conviction last year. The three-time premier and his supporters say that conviction is the result of persecution by left-wing elements in the judiciary who are trying to eliminate him from Italy’s public life. Berlusconi said that despite the poor showing, his party is still important to ensuring necessary government reforms announced by Renzi are passed.

“We are at the same time the decisive partners without which there are not the numbers in Parliament to make real reforms, definitive and lasting for the good of the country,” he said.

And some more Bunga Bunga woes from TheLocal.it:

Ex-MP ‘pilfered public money’ in Iraq deal

  • Italy’s former environment minister has been placed under house arrest for alleged embezzlement involving an Iraq water deal.

Corrado Clini, who served as environment minister with Mario Monti’s government, allegedly stole over €3 million from public money that was meant to fund a water purification project in Iraq, Corriere della Sera reported.

A businessman from Padua, whose company oversaw the deal in Iraq’s Tigris and Euphrates basin, was also placed under house arrest by Italy’s Finance Police on Monday morning, the newspaper added.

They face charges of embezzlement against the Italian ministry of environment, land and sea.

After the jump, its on to Greece and Syriza’s win and woes for the losers, the latest electoral and uprising news from the Ukraine, electioneering and ridicule in Egypt, intensified turmoil in Libya, Brazilian pre-World Cups woes and tensions, elections in Colombia and Venezuela, more austerity Down Under [targeting jobless youth], Macau unrest, Indian triumphalism, Thai troubles, more signs of a Chinese slowdown, environmental woes, and Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .
Continue reading

Soybeans and indigenous culture destruction


Soybeans have been hailed as a miracle crop, and they’ve certainly made miraculous millions for UC Berkeley “bioentrepreneur” Chris Somerville [he of the $500 million BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute], who sold his soy breeds to Monsanto before coming to Berkeley to head the BP program.

But what of those most impacted by the wonder crop, the Third World peoples whose lands are seized or purchased by Big Agra multinationals?

Deutsche Welle looks at one people deeply impacted by the corporate soy culture, the Aché of Parguay:

From Deutsche Welle:

Paraguay: The Downside of Soybean Consumption

Program notes:

Paraguay’s Atlantic Rainforest is home to the Aché. The indigenous people live from and with the forest as traditional hunters and gatherers. But pressure is growing on them: large-scale soya producers are offering them money for their land.

Only 13 percent of their original habitat in the Atlantic Rainforest remains. An Aché community of 40 families lives in the southern part of the forest. They still own 500 hectares of land. They’re surrounded by soybean plantations, but they, too, have to farm land to survive. A team from the World Wide Fund for Nature is helping the Aché preserve their habitat and way of life. They are encouraging the revival of yerba maté cultivation. The plant regenerates the forest floor, resulting in greater biodiversity.

Headlines: Polls, trolls, laws, toxins, more


Long visit from a kidlet, so late in posting. But major elections in Europe hint at major changes to come, and much more. . .so on with the show!

First, takin’ to the streets with RT:

World protests Monsanto grip on food supply chain

Hundreds of thousands people have united across the world to voice concern over the spread of GMO foods and crops and to raise awareness over the biotech giant Monsanto’s growing grip on the global food supply chain.

It was not only the fear of genetically modified organisms in foods that knows no boundaries. Activists on five continents around the globe, comprising of 52 nations joined the fight under the March against Monsanto umbrella.

Organized worldwide, peaceful family protests spoke out for the need to protect food supply, health, local farms and environment. Activists also sought to promote organic solutions to food production, while “exposing cronyism between big business and the government.”

With anti-GMO rallies having taken place in around 400 cities across the globe it’s still hard to estimate how many people participated in the event. Last year over 2 million people in 436 cities in 52 countries worldwide marched against the largest producer of genetically engineered seeds.

Next up, the back story to a tragedy from the Guardian:

Sheriff highlights mental-health shortcomings after California rampage

  • ‘There’s a general lack of resources in community treatment’
  • Bereaved parent blames ‘craven’ politicians and NRA

Police named Elliot Rodger, 22, the British-born son of a film director, as the suspect behind Friday’s murder spree in and around the Isla Vista campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, which left a trail of 10 separate crime scenes and 13 people injured.

On Sunday, Santa Barbara’s county sheriff, Bill Brown, blamed failures in mental-health treatment for the fact that Rodger’s behaviour had worried people around him and precipitated three contacts with police, most recently last month, but had not caused an intervention that might have averted the slaughter.

“I think the fact of the matter is, there’s a general lack of resources in community mental-health treatment generally,” he told CNN on Sunday. “There’s also probably a lack of notification by healthcare professionals in instances when people are expressing suicidal or in certain cases homicidal thoughts or tendencies.”

From the Republic Report, back story to another kind of tragedy:

Top Donor for House Education Chair is For-Profit College Facing Federal and State Fraud Probes

Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has no serious opposition in her bid for reelection, yet has received more than $800,000 in campaign contributions. More than half of that money has come from outside North Carolina, much of it from corporate special interests.

The single biggest donor group to Foxx, by almost a factor of two, is Santa Ana, California-based, for-profit Corinthian Colleges.

Corinthian, which operates Everest, Heald and WyoTech colleges, has a troubling record. The company faces a major lawsuit from California attorney general Kamala Harris, who has charged that Corinthian has engaged in “false and predatory advertising, intentional misrepresentations to students, securities fraud and unlawful use of military seals in advertisements.” Corinthian is also under investigation by a group of sixteen state attorneys general (Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and Pennsylvania) into its recruiting and business practices, and faces a separate probe by Massachusetts’ AG.

Federal investigators also are probing Corinthian. In June 2013, the Securities and Exchange Commission issued a subpoena to the company concerning student recruitment, degree completion, job placement, loan defaults and compliance with U.S. Education Department rules.

And the Los Angeles Times defines today’s Obama Democrats:

Past Republican donors rebuffing GOP candidates to back Jerry Brown

With Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown expected to romp to reelection this year against little-known rivals, many donors who gave Republican candidates more than $37 million in the last gubernatorial contest are now keeping their hands in their pockets.

But those who are writing checks are largely giving them to … Jerry Brown.

The governor has received nearly $2 million, a Times analysis of campaign reports found, from donors who fueled Meg Whitman’s and Steve Poizner’s Republican gubernatorial bids in 2010. That’s more than three times as much as his current GOP rivals have received from these donors.

From the Guardian, the results those big bucks produce:

Pensions are the spectre hanging over America, and your problem too

  • Most private-sector workers grew up with no promise of pensions, but the problem of our cities and states haunts us all

You may know that you’ll never collect a penny of either public or private pension income when you retire. That doesn’t mean those scary headlines about pensions – and pension reform – won’t cast a scary shadow across your own life. You may as well start thinking about how you’re going to cope with the fallout today.

Public pension plans themselves today calculate that they have about $1tn of unfunded liabilities – that’s the gap between how much they have on hand in assets today and how much they estimate they’ll need to pay out in benefits to members of the plans. In some cases, that sounds scarier than it is: what is just as important is its “funded ratio”, or the percentage of its liabilities covered by its assets.

The bad news? Morningstar calculates that safe pension plans are increasingly rare: more than half of all states have a funded ratio that falls below 70%, the threshold for being deemed fiscally sound. As recently as 2011, only 21 states failed that test (although that’s bad enough … ) and theoretically the rise in the stock market should have given the value of pension fund portfolios a big boost, making them look a lot healthier.

On to Europe, first with financial rumblings from the Associated Press:

ECB ready to act, but how much will it help?

Investors and analysts are nearly certain: The European Central Bank will take action at its next meeting to boost the tepid recovery.

What’s not at all certain is how much good that can do.

Any help is needed. The weak recovery in the 18 countries that use the euro is a source of risk and uncertainty for the rebounding U.S and global economy. The eurozone economy grew only 0.2% in the first quarter, gaining no speed from the quarter before. Worse, inflation is dangerously low at an annual 0.7%, well below the ECB’s goal of just under 2%.

And on with the day’s major European story, elections — first from Deutsche Welle:

EU vote sees boost for right wing in France, Austria and Greece

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front party is leading in the European Parliament elections in France, according to early projections. Results from across the 28-member bloc are coming in throughout the the evening.

According to early projections in Austria, the far-right FPÖ saw strong gains at 20 percent, compared to the 7.3 percent they garnered in 2009.

Belgium’s Flemish nationalist N-VA party looked set to make strong gains, partial results indicated, with 30 to 32 percent of the vote. TV exit polls in Denmark say the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party is set to take the biggest share of the Danish vote.

Britain next, with BBC News:

UKIP heading for clear victory in UK European elections

UKIP is course for an emphatic victory in the European elections in the UK – with leader Nigel Farage promising to use it as a springboard for next year’s general election.

Labour’s vote is up significantly on 2009 but it is vying with the Tories for second place.

The Lib Dems have come fifth behind the Green Party in most areas and have lost all but one of their seats.

Only Scotland, London and Northern Ireland have yet to declare.

One outcome, via the Guardian:

Triumphant Ukip draws up hitlist of 20 key seats to storm Commons

  • Nigel Farage to head ‘ruthless’ drive on Westminster, as Nick Clegg faces Lib Dem revolt over poor poll showing

Nigel Farage’s Ukip is to target at least 20 parliamentary seats at the next general election, using his party’s success in Thursday’s council elections as the launch pad for an all-out assault on the House of Commons, party officials have revealed.

In a move that will further unnerve the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – all of which have suffered from the Ukip surge – senior party officials said the next move would be to identify specific, mainly marginal, seats, where it now has a strong base of councillors. It is imitating the tactics that established the Liberal Democrats as a strong parliamentary force in the 1990s.

The extent of Farage’s ambitions came to light as Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg faced a serious backlash from party malcontents, including at least two parliamentary candidates and several prominent councillors, as activists gathered names on a petition demanding he be replaced immediately by a new leader.

On to Ireland, and more meaningful results from the Guardian:

Sinn Féin tastes electoral success north and south of the Irish border

  • Gerry Adams’s plan to govern on both sides of border by 100th anniversary of Easter Rising in 2016 moves a step closer

Sinn Féin has secured the single biggest number of first preference votes in Northern Ireland’s local government elections, while across the border in the Republic it won 25% of the vote and its highest number of councillors.

The electoral success brings a step closer Gerry Adams’ strategic plan to be in government on both sides of the Irish border by 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising.

It also suggests that his recent arrest in connection with the IRA’s kidnapping, killing and secret burial of Jean McConville did not seriously damage Sinn Féin’s election campaign. But the overall unionist vote in Northern Ireland also held up, with the Democratic Unionist party winning 130 seats compared with Sinn Féin, which returns to the new council chambers with 105 seats.

Scandinavia next, first with Bloomberg:

Voters Punish Reinfeldt as Protest Groups Gain in Nordic EU Vote

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt emerged as Sweden’s biggest loser in European parliament elections as voters across the Nordic region punished those in power.

Reinfeldt’s Conservatives fell 5.2 percentage points to 13.6 percent, becoming only the third biggest party in Sweden, according to a preliminary count from the Election Authority. The Greens jumped to 15.3 percent, while the Social Democrats won 24.4 percent, grabbing the most seats.

“This strengthens the stamp of defeat that has surrounded the government for a while now,” said Ulf Bjereld, a political science professor at Gothenburg University. “At the same time, from the Social Democrats’ perspective, one can note that they didn’t even manage to reach their utterly modest target of 25 percent.”

On to Copenhagen with EUbusiness:

Anti-immigrant Danish party wins EU vote: exit poll

The anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party won the election in Denmark for the European Parliament with 23 percent of the votes, according to an exit poll Sunday.

The poll, which was carried out by the firm Epinion on behalf of national broadcaster DR, put the party ahead of the Social Democrats who scored 20.2 percent.

“My mother’s heart swells, because I’m simply so proud if that’s the result,” the party’s charismatic cofounder and former leader Pia Kjaersgaard told DR in reaction to the poll. If proved correct, this result would give the party three of Denmark’s 13 seats in the European Parliament.

Germany next, first with TheLocal.de:

Eurosceptics and SPD celebrate EU vote gains

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc will remain Germany’s biggest party in the EU Parliament, according to exit polls, but lost ground to their rivals. It was a particularly good night for the centre-left and eurosceptic parties.

Merkel’s Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), were one of the main losers of the night, with their vote sinking by eight percent on the last EU elections in 2009.

It meant that Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc recorded their worst ever result in an EU election with 35.8 percent – down from 37.9 percent in 2009.

On to Belgium with the Associated Press:

Belgium faces tough coalition talks after vote

Initial results of Belgian national elections show big gains for the regionalist N-VA party in northern Flanders while the PS socialists were the biggest vote getters in southern Wallonia, raising the possibility of complicated coalition talks to form a government

With nearly half the votes counted, the Dutch-speaking N-VA party of Bart De Wever surged to 34 percent of Flemish votes in parliament, a rise of 6 percentage points.

The PS of Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo has 29 percent in Francophone Wallonia. That’s a drop of 7 percentage points but still enough to remain biggest vote getter in Di Rupo’s region.

France next, first with Reuters:

French far right poised for win as Europe votes on ‘Super Sunday’

The far right anti-EU National Front was forecast to win a European Parliament election in France on Sunday, topping a nationwide ballot for the first time in a stunning advance for opponents of European integration.

Critics of the European Union, riding a wave of anger over austerity and mass unemployment, gained ground elsewhere but in Germany, the EU’s biggest member state, the pro-European center ground held firm, according to exit polls.

In France, Marine Le Pen’s nationalist movement which blames Brussels for everything from immigration to job losses, was set to take about 25 percent of the vote, comfortably ahead of the conservative opposition UMP on about 21 percent.

President Francois Hollande’s Socialists suffered their second electoral humiliation in two months after losing dozens of town halls, trailing far behind in third place with about 14.5 percent, according to projections based on partial results.

More from Bloomberg:

French National Front Victory Needs EU Response, PM Valls Says

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the European Union needs to respond to the “earthquake’ of the National Front’s first-ever victory in nationwide voting in European parliamentary elections.

The anti-euro, anti-immigration party headed by Marine Le Pen won at least 25 percent of the vote, according to estimates by TNS Sofres, Ipsos, and Ifop. Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP Party placed second with about 20 percent, with the ruling Socialist Party coming in a distant third, with between 14 percent and 15 percent, the polls showed.

‘’Europe has disappointed,” Valls said in a televised address late yesterday from Paris. “Europe needs to give hope again. We need a Europe that is stronger, with more solidarity, more fairness.”

Next up, on to Geneva and a non-electoral story from Bloomberg:

Credit Suisse Offers Map to 13 Swiss Banks in U.S. Tax Probes

Thirteen Swiss banks face rising stakes in criminal tax-evasion probes after Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) set a new standard for punishment in the U.S. crackdown on offshore tax evasion.

Julius Baer Group Ltd., Zuercher Kantonalbank and the Swiss unit of HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA) are among those seeking to avoid pleading guilty to helping Americans cheat the Internal Revenue Service — an unprecedented step taken by Credit Suisse on May 19. Their degree of wrongdoing and cooperation with investigators will help decide their fate, said the top U.S. tax prosecutor.

“We will look at the facts and circumstances of each investigation to determine an appropriate penalty,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kathryn Keneally said in an interview. “It should be very clear from the Credit Suisse investigation that cooperation, or the lack thereof, is an important factor.”

Then on to Vilnius with BBC News:

Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite wins re-election after run-off

With nearly all votes counted she had won 58% with her Social Democrat rival Zigmantas Balcytis trailing on 42%.

The election was fought amid rising concerns in the region after Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Ms Grybauskaite thanked her supporters for granting her a second term. “No president has been elected twice in a row in Lithuania. It will be a historic victory for all of you,” she said.

Budapest next with EUbusiness:

Hungary’s right-wing dominates EU polls

Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz party swept to victory in European Parliament elections on Sunday, ahead of the far-right Jobbik party who overtook the Socialists to come second.

Just two months after a convincing victory in national elections, the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbantook an even more commanding win in the EU poll with 51.5 percent of the vote.

But turnout was poor at 29 percent — the second-lowest ever for European polls in the country. Orban’s party will send 12 MEPs to the Strasbourg parliament, taking up over half of Hungary’s 21 seats.

And on to Slovakia with EUobserver:

Slovakia’s EP election turnout set for all-time low of 13%

Slovakia is set to rewrite the record books of EU elections again, with unofficial turnout figures suggesting that just some 13 percent of people cared to vote.

If confirmed, this would surpass both the pessimistic pre-election estimate of 16-21 percent turnout and past results – 19.6 percent in 2009 and 16.9 percent in 2004. The latter was the lowest ever score in the union’s history.

Slovakia’s EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic, campaigning for the ruling social democrats (Smer-SD), said politicians need to seriously think about how to tackle the so-called Slovak paradox. People are generally supportive of EU membership and integration, but show an unprecedented lack of interest in the EP vote.

A non-slectoral headline from the Balkans via The Wire:

Historic Floods in the Balkans Give Way to Mudslides, Disease, and Landmines

Over the course of several days earlier this week, three-months-worth of rain hit the Balkan region. On Monday, the Bosnian government reported that one million residents — a quarter of the country’s population — were cut off from clean water, and 100,000 buildings destroyed.

Both Bosnia and Serbia have declared a state of emergency, as have a number of Croatian villages. Serbia’s prime minister said the damage would cost the country hundreds of millions of euros.

Thousands of landslides were triggered by the flooding and the tens of thousands who have been evacuated from the affected regions will likely be forced to rebuild their lives from scratch. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Next up Spain, and another shakeup from TheLocal.es:

Spain’s major parties lose out in Euro elections

  • Spain’s two main political parties, the ruling conservative Popular Party in power since 2011 and the Socialist Party, lost major ground in European Parliament elections on Sunday, official results showed.

The Popular Party elected 16 of Spain’s 54 lawmakers, down from 24 in the outgoing assembly while the Socialist Party took 14 seats, down from 23 with smaller parties, mainly on the left, making gains.

Polls had predicted a far more modest decline for the two main parties.

The result was seen as a sign of growing voter dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties in Spain as well as of fatigue with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s austerity measures and economic reforms.

A critical regional result via EUbusiness:

Separatist party wins EU vote in Spain’s Catalonia

A long-standing separatist party, the Republican Left, won the European Parliament elections in Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia on Sunday, official results showed.

The party captured 23.67 percent of the vote, beating the conservative Convergence and Union party, the biggest formation in Catalonia’s local parliament, which came in second with 21.86 percent of the vote.

Both parties want to hold a referendum on independence from Spain on November 9, flying in the face of fierce opposition from the central government in Madrid.

Italy next and a rare win for the incumbents from ANSA:

Renzi’s PD projected to land big win

Premier Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is set to be Italy’s top party in Sunday’s European elections by a big margin, according to early projections. A projection by SWG marketing for Sky gave the PD 36.8-38.8% of the vote, compared to 23.3-25.3% for comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment, Eurosceptic 5-Star Movement (M5S) and 15.6-17.6% for ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi’s opposition centre-right Forza Italia (FI).

Another projection by IPR marketing for State broadcaster Rai gave the PD a whopping 40.2% of the vote, compared to 23.1% for the M5S and 16% for FI. The PD said that, if the outcome is confirmed, it is an endorsement of the ambitious programme of institutional and economic reforms Renzi has embarked on since unseating his party colleague Enrico Letta in February to become Italy’s youngest premier at 39.

These include a drive to change the Constitution and transform the Senate into a leaner assembly of local-government representatives with limited lawmaking powers as part of an overhaul of the country’s slow, costly political machinery.

And from TheLocal.it, more bad news for a former incumbent:

Lebanon agrees to extradite Berlusconi ally

Lebanon is to extradite to Italy an ally of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wanted by Rome over mafia links, an official and his lawyer told AFP on Saturday.

“Lebanon has agreed to an Italian request to extradite (former) senator Marcello Dell’Utri,” who was arrested in Beirut in mid-April on an Interpol warrant, said lawyer Nasser al-Khalil. Khalil said he will appeal the extradition order.

An official source confirmed the decision and said outgoing President Michel Sleiman signed the extradition agreement with Italy just hours before his mandate ends at midnight Saturday.

After the jump, a Greek upset and furious reaction, the expected Ukrainian result, electoral and economic news from Latin America, Indonesian poverty’s impact on education, the Thai coup continues to unfold, the ongoing Chinese slowdown, major Abenomics questions for Japan, the latest environmental woes, plus added Fukushimapocalypse Now! Continue reading

A crisis in Italy: Mafia toxic waste dumping


From SBS Dateline, a documentary from the doomed [by a neoliberal Australian government] network on the massive scale of illegal toxic and nuclear waste dumping by the mafia with the collusion of successive governments:

Via Journeyman Pictures:

Inside Italy’s Secret Toxic Waste Crisis

Program notes:

On the foothills of Mount Vesuvius a new threat has emerged. Known as the “triangle of death”; 20 tonnes of toxic waste have been illegally dumped by the Mafia, causing child cancer rates to double.

“The ground is smouldering with unnatural fumes”, explains Enzo Tosti, a local activist. As the fumes rise, lethal contamination spreads into the local farms and the aquifers surrounding Naples. The effect of the Mafia waste disposal has been devastating as these toxins have now found their way into the food chain, causing “carcinogenic, mutagenic damage” and an upsurge in child cancer rates. Carmine Schiavone, the former Mafia boss in charge of disposing the toxic waste, has a price on his head. But he has now had a turn of conscience. Exposing that the waste near Naples was dumped under the “knowledge of senior officials”, Schiavone also indicates that Naples isn’t the only place in Italy facing this toxic time bomb.

Headlines: Pols, polls, EconoGrecoFukuNews


Today’s collection of political, economic, and environmental news headlines — plus the latest from Fukushima — begins a a “mission accomplished” entry from the Associated Press:

Tea party losing races but tugging GOP rightward

Tuesday’s high-profile primary elections may extend a streak of sorts for tea party Republicans: losing individual races but winning the larger ideological war by tugging the GOP rightward.

Tea party-endorsed candidates are struggling in Georgia, Kentucky and Idaho.

In each state, “establishment” Republican candidates have emphasized their conservative credentials — thus narrowing the party’s philosophical differences.

Democrats say it’s happening elsewhere — and that the candidates trying to give Republicans control of the Senate will prove too far right for centrist voters in November.

From the London Daily Mail, via the Dept. Of Anything for a Buck:

‘To sell baubles I find quite shocking and repugnant’: Families of workers killed on 9/11 vent fury at new museum’s tacky gift shop which stands above tomb storing 8,000 unidentified body parts of victims

  • The newly-opened National September 11 Memorial & Museum also features a gift shop
  • Many victims’ families feel the idea of a gift shop, so close to their loved-ones’ remains, offensive
  • Some 8,000 unidentified remains of victims were recently relocated to a tomb beneath the museum
  • The museum opened to victims’ families and survivors on Thursday and will open for the general public on May 21
  • Proceeds from the gift shop will go to ‘developing and sustaining’ the museum and memorial

From the Washington Post, consolidation of media continues:

AT&T, DirecTV announce $49 billion merger

AT&T announced Sunday that it was acquiring DirecTV in a $49 billion deal that would create a new telecom and television behemoth to rival cable firms — while raising fresh concerns about competition and options for consumers.

AT&T would gain DirecTV’s 20 million U.S. subscribers, a company with strong cash flows and an ability to fatten its bundle of offerings. The combined firm would be able to offer phone, high-speed Internet and pay-TV subscriptions to more customers — packages that cable firms such as Comcast have sold most successfully.

AT&T has agreed to acquire DirecTV for $95 a share, made up of $28.50 a share in cash and $66.50 a share in AT&T stock. AT&T says it expects to close the acquisition within 12 months.

More from the Department of Anything for a Buck from BuzzFeed:

New York To Keep Investments Linked To Russian Social Media Site Home to Neo-Nazi and Anti-Gay Groups

Coca Cola, McDonalds, and Burger King, keep advertising there, too.

LGBT activists have since February been pushing the city and state of New York to divest of holdings connected to the Russian social network VKontakte (VK) because it hosts the pages of hundreds of Neo-Nazi and anti-LGBT groups — but New York isn’t budging.

Duncan Obsorne, a member of LGBT rights protest group Queer Nation, told BuzzFeed the group met with both State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and City Comptroller Scott Stringer in April to discuss their holdings tied to VKontakte, which hosts hundreds of pages belonging to groups like Occupy Pedophilia, which entraps gay men to torture them on camera.

California’s state pension fund, CalPERS, responded to similar prodding from other LGBT activists and has sold $20 million shares in Mail.ru, which owns a 52 percent share of VKontakte and is owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, the Financial Times reported Friday. Queer Nation helped CalPERS research and investigate material on VK that lead to the fund’s decision to divest.

More consolidatin’ from BBC News:

Pfizer in new offer for AstraZeneca takeover

US drugs giant Pfizer has made an improved offer for the UK’s AstraZeneca as it bids to tie up the largest takeover in British business history.

The new offer of £55 per share would value AstraZeneca at about £69bn.

Pfizer plans to create the world’s largest drug company, with its headquarters in New York, but based in the UK for tax purposes.

That plan has proved controversial with unions and politicians, with 6,700 UK jobs at stake.

Bankster alert from TheLocal.fr:

Goldman Sachs fears BNP Paribas guilty plea

The head of US bank Goldman Sachs has warned that guilty pleas from rivals BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse, under legal proceedings in the United States, could hurt the financial system.

The head of US bank Goldman Sachs has warned that guilty pleas from rivals BNP Paribas and Credit Suisse, under legal proceedings in the United States, could hurt the financial system.

The two European banks, under probes for violating US sanctions and abetting tax evasion, are potentially facing very heavy fines that could reach billions of dollars.

From the Guardian, hot times in the Golden State:

California governor links wildfire increase to climate change

  • Jerry Brown predicts ‘worst’ wildfire season ever
  • Last evacuees home after San Diego County fires

Drought-stricken California is preparing for its worst wildfire season ever, the state’s governor said on Sunday.

Governor Jerry Brown told ABC’s This Week that the nearly dozen wildfires that this week caused more than $20m in damage mark only the beginning. The state has 5,000 firefighters and has appropriated $600m to battling blazes, but that may not be enough.

“We’re getting ready for the worst,” Brown said. “Now, we don’t want to anticipate before we know, but we need a full complement of firefighting capacity.”

From PRI’s The World, driving away to cheaper pastures:

Toyota built Torrance into the second-largest home of Japanese Americans. Now, it’s leaving

When Toyota announced plans last month to move its US headquarters from Southern California to Texas, the announcement caught a lot of people off guard — particularly in the city of Torrance, Toyota’s American home for the past 30 years.

Torrance is just 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles and is quintessential suburbia — the kind of place people move to when they’re ready to raise their kids.

It’s long been overshadowed by its livelier neighbors, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach.

From United Press International, scoldin’ students over Grinnin’ Bobby B:

Haverford College commencement speaker calls students ‘arrogant’ for protesting other speaker

Former Princeton President William G. Bowen called Haverford students “immature” and “arrogant” for protesting previously scheduled commencement speaker Robert J. Birgeneau.

Haverford College’s graduating class of 2014 got a slap on the wrist from their own commencement speaker on Sunday.

William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, called students “immature” for protesting the original speaker, Robert J. Birgeneau, who bowed out last week.

Birgeneau, former chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, faced criticism for his handling of the Occupy movement in 2011, when he allegedly allowed campus police to use force against protesters.

On to Europe and a brouhaha in Brussels via EurActiv:

Hundreds of protesters arrested in Brussels as business leaders debate ‘maintaining citizen’s trust’

240 people were arrested on Thursday (15 May) around the European Business Summit venue in Brussels during non-violent protests organised by trade unions and citizens’ groups.

The protestors had gathered to denounce the budgetary austerity policies in Europe, and the ongoing talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the USA, which they say is being negotiated “in total opacity”.

“Today multinationals are inviting political decision makers like the European trade commissioner Karel De Gucht and they are discussing putting more business in Europe,” said Felipe Van Keirsblick, the secretary general of the Belgian trade union for employees, the CNE-CNG.

From the Department of Mother Said Never Do It, via EurActiv:

EU secret revealed: Rome Treaty was signed on blank sheet

At the launch of a book on the history of the European Commission, officials revealed some of the best-kept secrets in EU history. Among them is the incredible story of the signing of the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community, on 1 January 1958.

José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing President of the European Commission, presented the second volume of a book Wednesday (14 May) telling the history of the Commission between 1973 and 1986.

The ceremony, hosted on the 13th floor of the Commission’s flagship Berlaymont building, gave Barroso the occasion to disclose unknown anecdotes, the most extraordinary of which regards the signature of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The event was attended by many figures of post-war European integration history, including old-time surviving officials from the Commission such as Jean Rabier, born in 1919, the chief of staff of Jean Monnet, one of the “founding fathers” of Europe.

Britain next and a departure alert from EUobserver:

Brexit would be ‘very costly gamble’, warns think tank

Increased trade and regulatory costs would cost the UK economy up to 9.5 percent of its output if the UK left the European Union, according to new research by the London School of Economics.

The findings are contained in the ‘Brexit or Fixit’? report by researchers at the Centre for Economic Performance, which forms part of the university.

“Our current assessment is that leaving the EU would be likely to impose substantial costs on the UK economy and would be a very risky gamble,” the paper states.

The London Telegraph strives to tame a bubble:

Mortgages could be capped to control house prices, says Bank Governor

  • The Bank of England could step in to curb mortgage lending amid fears Britain’s booming housing market risks threatening the economic recovery, says its Governor Mark Carney

People could be stopped taking out mortgages worth many times their salary to buy new homes, the Governor of the Bank of England has said.

Mark Carney said in an interview that capping the size of mortgage ratios to salaries was one measure the Bank was considering to controlling the housing market.

The Bank was also watching to see if the Government’s Help to Buy scheme – in which the Government gives people taxpayers money to cover deposits on new homes worth up to £600,000 – was fuelling them.

The Independent totes up another austerian cost:

Cuts send rates of mental health disorders among young soaring

Rising rates of mental health disorders among children are linked to council budget cuts and health restructurings that have denied vulnerable young people early help, the Children’s Commissioner has told MPs.

Maggie Atkinson, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said more children and young people with mental health problems were being admitted to adult psychiatric wards.

In written evidence to the Health Select Committee, which is holding an inquiry into the Children’s and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), she said: “It cannot be coincidental that the increasing concerns about child and adolescent mental health coincides with the biggest reconfiguration of health and social care services, reductions in preventative and early intervention budgets and local CAMHS budgets and therefore spending, in a generation.”

And over to Ireland, where concerns about mental health patients under the austerian regime have led one Irish hospital director to resign, reports Independent.ie:

Hospital’s clinical director resigns due to his concerns for ‘patient safety’

The clinical director of Beaumont Hospital has resigned citing his concerns for patient safety. Professor Shane O’Neill emailed his resignation to management on Friday.

In his role as clinical director, he was the hospital’s most senior doctor.

The Sunday Business Post reported Mr O’Neill’s previous correspondence with management, saying assessment of psychiatric patients in their busy accident and emergency department was “entirely unsafe”.

From Independent.ie, another diagnostic criterion of austerity on the Emerald Isle:

‘Tsunami of homelessness’ beyond crisis point, warns campaigner

Social justice campaigner Fr Peter McVerry has claimed the “tsunami of homelessness” is the worst he has ever seen.

He said that in his 40 years working with homeless people in Dublin, the housing shortage has never been as problematic as it is now and is being forced into turning people away due to a lack of capacity.

His charity – The Peter McVerry Trust – is struggling to cope with demand and says the problem is getting worse. “There are six new people becoming homeless every day and that’s the official figures. It may be more than that”.

German next, with a cash infusion from Reuters:

Deutsche Bank enlists Qatar in 8 billion-euro capital hike

Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE) said on Sunday it would raise 8 billion euros in new capital, with the Qatari royal family lined up as a major new investor, in a bid by Germany’s largest bank to end questions about its capital position.

The bank had already raised 10.2 billion euros in equity in 2010 and a further 3 billion euros in 2013, but that had not been enough to assuage investor concerns about its capital position as if faces increased regulatory demands.

A stake worth 1.75 billion euros has already been placed with an investment vehicle owned and controlled by Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabor Al-Thani of Qatar, Deutsche Bank said in a statement. It plans to raise another 6.3 billion euros in a rights issue to existing shareholders.

Austerity in Germany, only at the bottom, via New Europe:

OECD: Germany needs more jobs, less poverty

A new report published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on May 13 calls on Germany to implement more measures aimed at reducing poverty.

According to the OECD, recent labour market reforms have increased the rate of unemployment and widened the social inequality gap.

“Germany’s current economic success offers a good platform for achieving sustainable and inclusive growth, but further reforms will be necessary over the medium and long-term,” the OECD reported.

On to Austria with New Europe and a boost for the right:

Austria: Populist Freedom Party strong in EU vote

Despite its Euroskeptic stance, the Freedom Party is only a few percentage points behind the Socialists and the conservative People’s Party in the May 25 race for EU Parliament seats. That’s in line with expectations of a generally strong showing of right-leaning populist parties in the EU parliamentary race.

But pollsters also say that if national elections were held now, the Freedom Party would actually win them, a stunning upset of the two establishment parties that have traditionally governed Austria.

The party’s popularity clearly reflects unhappiness with the status quo. And that’s hard to explain, when looking only at Austria’s metrics.

From Deutsche Welle, Swiss nix both guns and butter:

Swiss referendum turns down minimum wage and new fighter jets

Voters in Switzerland have rejected a proposal that would have introduced the world’s highest minimum wage. They also turned down a plan to buy more than twenty new fighter jets.

The vote count by Swiss TV showed some 77 percent of voters and 24 of the Alpine nation’s 26 cantons (states) rejecting the idea mooted by trade unions to create a minimum wage of 22 Swiss francs (20.22 euros, $24.70) per hour. Votes from the capital Bern and business center of Zurich are still to be announced.

Trade unions had argued the wage would be a way to fight poverty in a country known for its very high cost of living.

Business leaders had argued the minimum wage rate would cost jobs and erode economic competitiveness, driving Switzerland’s high costs even higher. The median hourly wage is about 33 francs (27 euros, $37) an hour.

From France, a chutzpah alert from TheLocal.fr:

French rogue trader demands to see Hollande

Rogue trader Jérôme Kerviel, facing a Sunday deadline to return to France to begin a three year prison term, has demanded an audience with President Francois Hollande.

Issuing a statement from the Italian border town of Ventimiglia, Kerviel said he wished to detail “all the serious failings” that led to his conviction after he brought one of Europe’s biggest banks to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008.

Aides to Hollande said Saturday they would consider a request from Kerviel for a presidential pardon over his role in the loss of nearly five billion euros through wildly risky trades.

From FRANCE 24, a belated act of resistance:

France extends veto power over foreign takeovers

The French government on Thursday changed its policy to increase the state’s influence in foreign buyouts and investment in key sectors, which will allow it to intervene in GE’s controversial bid for French giant Alstom.

The new rules will come into effect on Friday and cover the key sectors of energy, transport, water, health and telecoms.

“The choice we have made, along with the prime minister (Manuel Valls), is the choice of economic patriotism,” Economy Minister Arnaud Montebourg told daily newspaper Le Monde.

Portugal next and an upgrade form New Europe:

Moody’s raises Portugal’s rating to Ba2

Portugal has received its first ratings upgrade since the sovereign-debt crisis pushed it into a €78 billion rescue programme in 2011.

Moody’s Investors Service said on 9 May it upgraded Portugal’s government bond rating to Ba2 from Ba3. In addition, the rating agency placed the Ba2 rating on review for possible further upgrade.

Moody’s said  Portugal’s fiscal situation has improved more rapidly than initially targeted and the public debt ratio will start declining this year, albeit from a very high level. The budget deficit was reduced a full percentage point of GDP more than envisaged last year, indicating the government’s strong commitment to fiscal consolidation.

Off to Italy and a Bunga Bunga rebuke from Europe Online:

Ex wife lashes out at Berlusconi over unflattering tabloid shots

The ex-wife of Silvio Berlusconi on Sunday charged that following her divorce, she was being subjected to “miserable” hounding from a gossip magazine published by the family of the former Italian premier.

Earlier this month, Chi magazine printed unflattering paparazzi pictures of Veronica Lario, under the headline “The new life of Veronica.” It noted that she had “put on a bit of weight,” and asked plastic surgeons how they would operate on her.

“It hurts me that the weekly responsible for this miserable ambush belongs to my ex-husband,” the 57-year-old Lario said in a rare interview to Il Messaggero newspaper.

Next up, off to Eastern Europe with Sky News:

Balkans: Worst Floods In A Century Kill Dozens

Tens of thousands have fled their homes after Serbia and Bosnia experienced three months of rainfall in just three days.

The worst floods to hit the Balkans in more than a century have killed dozens, and there are fears that number could rise as a major river is set to be hit by a new flood wave this evening.

Tens of thousands have fled their homes in Bosnia and Serbia after three months of rain fell on the region in just three days. Thousands have also been evacuated in Croatia, where one person has died and two remain missing.

A video report form euronews:

Dozens dead, tens of thousands evacuated from Balkans flooding

Program note:

The death toll continues to rise from the flooding in the Balkans. In central and western Serbia, the rains did start to ease and waters receded in some of the worst-hit areas on Sunday, May 18.

But essential services, like power stations, have been submerged. Serbia’s EPS power utility said fresh flooding is threatening the Nikola Tesla and Kostolac power plants in Obrenovac, 30 kilometres southwest of the capital, Belgrade. Kostolac currently supplies 20 percent of Serbia’s electricity needs.

From the Washington Post, a headline that could’ve gone in our companion compendium of headlines:

Russian President Putin builds ties in Moldova, Kazakhstan and Baltics

Vowing to defend ethnic Russians wherever they live, President Vladimir Putin has embarked on an aggressive campaign to rebuild the pride and assertiveness of the Russian people, which he says was lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union.

A week ahead of a presidential vote in Ukraine that will help determine that nation’s relationship with Russia, Putin has been devoting new power to redressing what he has called the historical tragedy that shattered the Soviet Union into 15 nations.

From annexing Crimea to collecting separatist petitions in Moldova to handing out passports to compatriots in the Baltics, Putin has spent recent weeks focused on neighboring countries, many of which have substantial ethnic Russian minorities.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, Cypriot relief, Ukrainian questions, Russian political moves, Turkish troubles, Iranian woes, African measures and countermeasures, Latin American troubles and deals, Thai turmoil, China slowdown signs, Abenomics in question, environmental woes, and the latest in Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines: Pols, lies, eCons, and polluters


Today’s tales from the worlds of economics, politics and the environment — plus added Fukusihmapocalypse Now! — opens with hope for modest relief for some via the Guardian:

Sallie Mae and Justice Department in $60m deal over military student loans

  • US government had claimed the student loan giant imposed interest rates on service members above the 6% allowed by law

Student lender Sallie Mae has reached a $60m settlement with the Justice Department to resolve allegations that it charged members of the military excessive interest rates on their student loans, the federal government announced Tuesday.

The deal settles a government lawsuit that asserted the student loan giant violated the rights of service members by imposing interest rates above the 6% permitted by federal law and by improperly seeking default judgments against them. Separately, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation announced a settlement of $30m in restitution arising from allegations that the company maximized consumer late fee charges, as well as $6.6m in civil penalties.

The lawsuit was the Justice Department’s first against owners and servicers of student loans for violating rights of service members. The settlement has been filed in federal court in Delaware and is awaiting a judge’s approval.

From the New York Times, business as usual:

Citigroup Says It Has Fired 12 in Mexico Over Fraud

Citigroup disclosed on Wednesday that it had fired a total of 12 employees in Mexico, including some senior executives, in connection with a $400 million fraud involving a Mexican oil services company.

In an internal memorandum to Citigroup employees, the bank’s chief executive, Michael L. Corbat, disclosed the terminations of the employees, including several managing directors, two of whom were business heads at the bank’s Banamex unit.

“Additionally, before our investigation concludes, we expect that several other employees, both inside and outside of Mexico, may receive forms of disciplinary action as well,” Mr. Corbat said in the memo.

From the Guardian, more business as usual:

Banks return to risky business: lax standards and subprime loans

  • Big banks like JP Morgan have rewired troubling, familiar tactics as they scrounge for profit in a difficult market

With business lending sluggish and mortgage lending slumping, Wells Fargo has decided it can cut those credit standards. Last month, it raised eyebrows by cutting the minimum credit score required to qualify for an FHA mortgage. It’s also making a big push into another area of lending notorious for poor lending standards: auto loans. Forget subprime mortgages; by the end of 2013, Wells was the second-biggest subprime auto lender in the country.

At least we’re all alert to the risks tied to lending, thanks to the vivid memories of 2008. The other side of the banking business is how they manage their deposits, and the quest to replace missing profits from this part of the enterprise is much less obvious to the casual observer. Nonetheless, analyst Mike Mayo says it’s this that keeps him awake at night far more often than worrying about stupid lending practices. “We haven’t had enough loan growth yet to cause a big problem.”

Specifically, Mayo frets that bankers are too complacent about whether depositors will stick around in a rising interest rate environment – and how much they’ll have to pay out in interest rates to hang on to those deposits. Then, too, there’s the question of what the banks are doing with all those deposits in the meantime.

From the Guardian again, the elite indulges:

Christie’s racks up $745m in one night – and the bubble keeps inflating

This week’s mega-auctions are once again reaching obscenely high prices, with a Barnett Newman selling for $84.2m and a Bacon triptych close to that. Why is there no sign of a crash?

Christie’s evening sale racked up a wacky, near-incomprehensible $745m, the highest total in history for a single sale – smashing past the house’s own high estimate of $500m, and beating November’s $691.6m sale, whose own Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, set a record (in nominal terms) for the priciest painting ever. The sale established new record prices for 10 artists, including Newman, Alexander Calder, and Joan Mitchell – who became the most expensive woman at auction for a messy blue abstraction from 1960.

Boggling enough on its own, the $744m sale came just a day after the end of Frieze New York, where untold millions changed hands, and on the heels of Christie’s own warm-up auction highlighting the “gritty, underbelly-esque side of contemporary art,” a rather ludicrous phrase to describe $134.6m worth of safe, predictable painting and sculpture. And collectors are set to do it all again Wednesday, when Christie’s rival Sotheby’s mounts its own evening sale.

“We are not in a bubble,” Christie’s CEO Steven Murphy insisted after the sale on Monday. To which the correct response is the one Mandy Rice-Davies gave during the Profumo scandal: “He would, wouldn’t he?” All the same, here are four theories on why the bubble keeps inflating, and why it may be a while before it bursts.

From the Los Angeles Times, a light frost in Hades?:

Howard Jarvis group won’t oppose bill to close Prop. 13 loophole

The staunchest defender of California’s politically untouchable property-tax initiative, Proposition 13, has tacitly approved a bid to change the landmark law for the first time since voters passed it 36 years ago.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., the anti-tax group named for the champion of the 1978 measure, dropped its opposition to a bill that would clamp down on companies avoiding higher property taxes when they buy commercial real estate by using a corporate ownership maneuver.

“I think that the withdrawal of our opposition, at least for now, suggests that we don’t see this as a direct threat to Prop. 13,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Jarvis group, whose crusade for the law sparked a nationwide tax revolt.

From BBC News, a story to shake you up:

Water extraction for human use boosts California quakes

Extracting water for human activities is increasing the number of small earthquakes being triggered in California.

A new study suggests that the heavy use of ground water for pumping and irrigation is causing mountains to lift and valleys to subside.

The scientists say this depletion of the water is increasing seismic activity along the San Andreas fault.

Another California water story, this time from the East Bay Express, reporting on Governor Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan [BDCP]:

The Water Tunnel Boondoggle

  • Experts say the eye-popping costs of Governor Brown’s plan to build two giant water tunnels far outweigh the financial benefits. And taxpayers may be left holding the bag.

The project — along with the costs of mitigating the damage wrought by it — also promises to be hugely expensive. Two water agencies — the Westlands Water District, which services about seven hundred farms in a vast strip of desert in the western San Joaquin Valley, and the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies 19 million Southern Californians with water — plan to cover the majority of the costs of the tunnels, an estimated $15 billion, along with any economic damage they cause to the Delta.

But even as the project’s public comment period draws to a close next month, the state has yet to develop a clear financial plan for the tunnels. Moreover, the relatively few financial facts that do exist are hotly contested. The Department of Water Resources, for example, often states that the entire plan will cost a total of $25 billion, yet many economists think that, when interest on the bonds is factored in, the true figure will run closer to $70 billion.

In terms of benefits, state officials say the tunnels will generate an overall net gain of roughly $5 billion for California’s economy. But other water experts contend the plan could actually result in an annual net loss of about $100 million a year for water contractors backing the project.

From the Los Angeles Times, more ominous signs of a deadly summer to come in the Golden State as a record drought continues:

San Diego County fires: ‘It’s like a scene from Armageddon’

Brush fires broke out in more than half a dozen spots in northern San Diego County and spread at a dangerous pace as hot, dry, erratic winds, backed by record temperatures, raked Southern California for a second day Wednesday.

The fires forced evacuations of schools, businesses, homes, a mobile-home park and Cal State San Marcos, along with causing massive traffic jams and stretching firefighting resources almost to the breaking point.

The most destructive of the blazes was the Poinsettia fire in Carlsbad, which burned several hundred acres, hopscotching between pricey neighborhoods near brushy canyons.

And another faint hope for reform from within via the Guardian:

Google investors press for code of conduct on tax

Proposal by group of activist investors will be voted on at annual shareholder meeting and is opposed by Google board

A group of activist investors are calling on other Google shareholders to press the company to adopt a code of conduct on tax that would bring its corporate structures back in line with its “Don’t be evil” motto.

“A set of principles to address misalignments between Google’s tax strategies and its commitments to employees, communities, shareholders and the environment would help protect long-term value,” they argue in a proposal to be voted on at Google’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday.

The proposal has been made by Domini Social Equity Fund, which has close to $1bn of assets, and five other investors in the internet firm. It is opposed by the Google chairman, Eric Schmidt, and his board.

From the Register, surrendering to the corporate tracking imperative online:

Mozilla agrees to add DRM support to Firefox – under protest

  • ‘We don’t like it, but we have to use it’

Mozilla has announced that it will add Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) for digital rights management into a future build of Firefox, even if the organization disagrees with the technology on principle.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is to add EME into the specifications for HTML5 at the behest of Microsoft, Google, and Netflix. Sir Tim Berners-Lee supports the move, but Mozilla had been objecting to the plans as technically unnecessary. However, it has decided to cave.

“We have come to the point where Mozilla not implementing the W3C EME specification means that Firefox users have to switch to other browsers to watch content restricted by DRM ,” said Chief Technology Officer Andreas Gal.

Opening shots from an academic battle from USA TODAY:

For-profit colleges, student advocates lobby Obama

As the Obama administration prepares to establish new rules governing for-profit colleges later this year, student advocates and the career college industry are waging a fierce battle to shape the coming regulations.

Stakeholders on both sides of the debate are ramping up their push on the administration just as the public comment period on a proposed “gainful employment” regulation is set to close May 26.

Under the proposal that the administration unveiled in March, colleges would have to demonstrate that graduates’ debt load on average does not exceed 30% of their discretionary earnings or 12% of their total earnings.

And another national shame, reported by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in the UC Berkeley Blog:

How the right wing is killing women

According to a report released last week in the widely-respected health research journal, The Lancet, the United States now ranks 60th out of 180 countries on maternal deaths occurring during pregnancy and childbirth.

To put it bluntly, for every 100,000 births in America last year, 18.5 women died. That’s compared to 8.2 women who died during pregnancy and birth in Canada, 6.1 in Britain, and only 2.4 in Iceland.

A woman giving birth in America is more than twice as likely to die as a woman in Saudi Arabia or China.

And another national shame, via The Contributor Network:

REPORT: Children as Young as 7 Working in US Tobacco Fields

  • An international rights group is pushing the federal government and the tobacco industry to take further steps to protect children working on U.S. tobacco farms.

A report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch claims that children as young as 7 are sometimes working long hours in fields harvesting nicotine- and pesticide-laced tobacco leaves under sometimes hazardous conditions. Most of what the group documented is legal, but it wants cigarette makers to push for safety on farms from which they buy tobacco.

Human Rights Watch details findings from interviews with more than 140 children working on farms in North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, where a majority of the country’s tobacco is grown.

New enterprise struggles from the New York Times:

The Bud Light-ification of Bud

There’s a pressing economic reason for the pot industry to get better if it is to survive, aside from its formidable legal challenges. The plant is relatively cheap and easy to grow, and not complicated to process either. Left to the whims of the open market — meaning ignoring taxes and regulations — the price of a joint could plummet to the price of a tea bag or a packet of sugar. So how will investors help the market mature while still making money?

The market for marijuana is nothing like the market for corn or wine or tobacco — at least not yet — and the reasons start in the ground: Marijuana growing and processing is downright bush-league compared to modern American agribusiness. Much of the pot produced in the United States still comes from illegal or semi-legal grow sites, even given the surge of production and processing in states with recreational or medicinal laws. And strains remain understudied and underanalyzed, compared with the wheat in your cereal or even the marigolds in your garden.

The inefficiencies continue to pile up after the harvest. Marijuana has to be cured, then trimmed, before it is sold, and much of this work is still done by hand. Workers use scissors to cut away tough outer leaves and expose the smokable part of the plant. It’s a labor-intensive process, the kind that in other instances is completed by a machine, like a thresher or a cotton gin.

And from the Japan Daily Press, still time to resist:

U.S. sees no conclusion to Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations anytime soon

The stalemate is still on as the nations included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not expecting a conclusion to be met in the negotiations anytime soon. With a ministerial meeting happening in Singapore this month, members of what will be the world’s biggest free trade deal are yet to finalize the deal as both Japan and the United States, both key economies in the deal, failed to reach a conclusion on the negotiations last month.

While many expected progress to happen when US President Barack Obama himself went to Japan last month to discuss this, many were disappointed to learn that further talks are needed to come to a final agreement. The deadlock remains to be because of Japan’s refusal to give up tariffs on key products such as farming produce and automobiles, both the bread and butter of the Asian nation. This has affected widely the negotiations of the 12-nations included in the TPP as they wait for the final outcome of the talks between Japan and the U.S. The countries included in the TPP will meet in Singapore this week to give updates regarding other talks. They are expected to outline other details including regulations on labor, intellectual property and the environment as soon as the deal has been ironed out.

For our first European story, a plaintive pontifical plea from ANSA:

Pope condemns ‘massacre’ of migrants at sea as ‘shameful’

  • Francis asks for prayers for people fleeing homelands by boat

Pope Francis on Wednesday condemned the “massacre” of desperate migrants who are killed in boat disasters on the Mediterranean Sea as they flee their homelands for a new life in Europe. During his weekly general audience, the pope said it was “shameful” that thousands of migrants are killed on the seas between North African and the southern borders of Italy.

Shortly before he spoke, police in southern Italy said they had arrested two alleged human smugglers who authorities say deliberately caused a boat carrying as many as 400 migrants to sink off the coast of Libya Monday to induce an Italian sea rescue.

So far, 17 have been confirmed dead and more than 200 rescued but as many as 200 more are still missing.

Next, via EUbusiness, another hint of things to come:

Eurozone industrial output slips back in March: Eurostat

Eurozone industrial output fell in March, official data showed on Wednesday, consistent with recent data showing the economic recovery to be patchy so far.

Industrial output in the 18-nation eurozone dropped 0.3 percent in March compared with the figure for February when it gained 0.2 percent, the Eurostat statistics agency said.

Compared with March 2013, eurozone industrial output was down 0.1 percent, after posting a year-on-year gain of 1.7 percent in February.

From Europe Online, another form of resistance to the austerian imperative:

Brussels expects stronger resistance to austerity in next EU assembly

The European Commission believes that it will be harder to get the European Parliament to approve austerity legislation after this month’s elections, internal documents seen by dpa showed Wednesday.

The European Union’s executive arm acknowledged that based on polling trends, the staunchest backers of recent budget discipline reforms, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), will be “substantially weakened.”

“Some of the winning coalitions” that supported reforms in the outgoing Parliament, which had “the EPP and ALDE at their core,” are likely to “no longer be sufficient to reach a majority” in the next EU assembly, according to an analysis by the commission’s economic and financial department.

EurActiv raises an objection:

Norway accuses Apple of breaching EU consumer law

Apple’s iCloud service violates European law by giving itself the right to change its terms and conditions at any time, without notifying its customers, according to a complaint lodged 13 May by the Norwegian Consumer Council.

The council, a government agency, earlier published a study accusing Apple iCloud’s terms of service of violating consumer rights and privacy before the complaint to Norway’s Consumer Ombudsman.

The unfair practice complaint is based on the EU’s directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts. Because people often store important information in the cloud, such as documents and photos, it is particularly important they understand the contract, the council said.

On to Britain and xenophobic fears fail to materialize, via Sky News:

East European Migrant Influx Fails To Emerge

The number of migrants from Romania and Bulgaria has fallen since border controls were lifted but rose over the long-term.

The number of Romanians and Bulgarians working in the UK has fallen by 4,000 since transitional controls on immigration were lifted on January 1.

Figures from the Office of National Statistics show 140,000 people born in one of the two countries were employed between January and March this year.

That is down from 144,000 between October and December, suggesting concerns about mass immigration following the New Year have been unfounded.

And some positive numbers from BBC News:

UK unemployment rate falls to five-year low

The number of people out of work in the UK fell by 133,000 to a fresh five-year low of 2.2 million in the three months to March, official figures show.

The jobless rate also fell to a five-year low of 6.8%, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

The number of people in work rose to 30.43 million, the highest since records began in 1971, helped by a rise in self-employment. Average earnings in the three months to March were up 1.7% from a year earlier.

But other numbers hint of another reality, via the Independent:

Anger as Employment Minister Esther McVey denies food bank use is linked to welfare reforms

Charities and politicians have reacted with anger to a claim by the Employment Minister that the dramatic rise in the number of people using food banks has nothing to do with the Government’s welfare reforms.

In a letter to the Scottish government, Esther McVey said “the rise in food banks predates most of the welfare reforms this Government has put in place”, adding that there was “no robust evidence linking food bank usage to welfare reform”.

Figures from the Trussell Trust, Britain’s biggest food bank provider, have shown that demand has increased by more than 300 per cent in the past year.

Sky News hints at a bankster victory:

Banks Warn Regulator On ‘Illegal’ Bonus Rules

Bank of England proposals to toughen bank bonus rules could be legally unenforceable, a document obtained by Sky News warns.

New rules that would force bankers to wait more than a decade to get their hands on bonuses would breach “the principle of natural justice” and leave lenders exposed to costly legal challenges, a trade body has warned.

In a document obtained by Sky News, the British Bankers’ Association (BBA) argued that plans to apply clawback provisions retrospectively would be illegal in Brazil, France, Germany and Mexico, countries in which UK-based lenders such as HSBC have a substantial presence.

The BoE’s proposals would force banks to reclaim variable compensation from senior employees for up to six years after it has been handed over and spent.

On to Norway and trepidation from TheLocal.no:

Norway slashes growth forecast on oil slowdown

Norway’s government on Wednesday slashed its growth forecast for this year, citing a slowdown in spending by the key oil sector in the Nordic country.

In a revised budget the government said the Norwegian economy is now forecast to grow by 1.9 percent in 2014, compared to the 2.5-percent increase expected in the original budget submitted last November.

This forecast concerns the country’s “mainland” GDP, which leaves out fossil fuels and maritime transport and is preferred as an indicator in Norway
since it excludes the strong cyclical variations related to oil, one of the country’s main exports.

However the purchase by the oil sector of goods and services is included in the country’s “mainland” GDP calculation, and the finance ministry expects this to stabilise then decrease.

Hypocritical criticism of the day award goes to. . .Well, you get the idea. And imagine if the U.S. had the same priorities as one of the happiest nations on earth. From TheLocal.se:

‘Swedes prioritize welfare and jobs above security’

No one doubts the Swedes’ ability to fight, but they do doubt Nato-ambivalent Sweden’s commitment to helping its neighbours, argues former US defence attaché to Sweden Bruce Acker.

In the wake of Russian annexation of Crimea, the Swedish defense debate has intensified over the nature of its security structures and partnerships. The Swedish solidarity declaration of 2009 is frequently criticized for being unresourced and therefore weak:

On to Austria and a slowdown from TheLocal.at:

Verbund shuts five power plants

Verbund, Austria’s leading electricity company, is mothballing five power stations to cut costs.

The company said it would temporarily decommission several combined cycle gas-fired power plants in Austria and France, including the 848-megawatt Mellach power station that was commissioned only three years ago.

Additionally, a coal-fired power plant in Dürnrohr and an oil-fueled plant in Styria will be closed, the company added.

The reason for the closures is the “massive disruption in the European electricity market” and “sector-wide economic pressures”, Verbund said. It hopes the restructuring will lead to “lasting economic improvements”.

TheLocal.at again, with a shortfall:

Austrian army ‘going broke’

The Austrian army is in serious financial trouble – so much so that regiments can’t afford fuel and soldiers are forced to march on foot.

Defence Minister Gerald Klug (SPÖ) has said that with its current budget the army “is no longer financially viable”.

His staff have done an analysis of the army’s current saving plan and found that by autumn it won’t even be able to afford its fuel bill.

And a good use for a house linked to a murderous xenophobe extraordinaire from TheLocal.at:

Hitler’s house to become migrant centre?

A long-running debate over the future of the house where Hitler was born finally appears set to be resolved.

The Renaissance-era structure, located near the central square of the picturesque town of Braunau in Upper Austria, is considered prime real estate.

At a recent ‘Birthplace Summit’, held at the Interior Ministry in early May, the house’s current owner and representatives from Braunau met with Austria’s Interior Ministry to discuss the fate of the controversial building.

For decades however, the shadow of Adolf Hitler – its most infamous son – has hung over the former guest house, creating a constant headache for Braunau’s administration.

On to Spain with thinkSPAIN and political provocation:

Mock ‘abortion package tour’ travel agency launched in protest over Spanish law reform

CAMPAIGNERS fighting the proposed restrictions on abortion announced by Spain’s minister of justice have set up a spoof travel agency offering trips to Europe for women wishing to terminate a pregnancy.

Dubbed ‘Abortion Travel – the agency that shouldn’t exist’, the pretend online ‘company’ offers packages to London, Paris and Berlin ranging from 1,940 euros to 2,620 euros.

Its organisers even give women advice relating to where to travel to in Europe depending upon how far gone their pregnancy is and the national law relating to their stage of gestation.

TheLocal.es covers a dismal ratio:

Spain: One vacancy for every 110 jobseekers

Spain had only one job opening for every 110 unemployed people in the final three months of 2013, the second worst rate in the European Union, a new study released on Wednesday shows.

Before Spain’s economic crisis kicked off in 2007, this rate was one job opening for every 17.5 jobseekers, the latest labour market bulletin by job agency Asempleo and financial consultants Afi shows.

Only Cyprus had a worse ratio: there the ratio was one job per 154 people searching for work.

The lack of job openings in Spain — where the official unemployment rate is 25.93 percent — is also in stark contrast with the EU average for the final quarter of of 2013. That figure was 12.3 unemployed people for each job on offer.

Italy next and a Bunga Buna bloviation from ANSA:

Berlusconi says accord with Renzi ‘useless’

  • Forza Italia leader says party will vote as it sees fit

Ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi said Wednesday that continuing an accord with Premier Matteo Renzi on government reforms would be “useless”. Instead of advance agreements, he said, his opposition centre-right Forza Italia (FI) party would decide for itself how to vote on each reform measure.

“It is useless to make arrangements before,” any vote, Berlusconi said in a television interview with Rai.

“We expect to see the reforms in Parliament (and) if we believe they are the best, we will vote for them,” and otherwise, FI will vote against the measure, he added.

TheLocal.it asks for a helping hand:

‘EU officials asked US for help to oust Berlusconi’

EU officials asked the US government for help to oust Silvio Berlusconi from the Italian premiership at the height of the economic crisis in 2011, a former advisor to US President Barack Obama has claimed.

Tim Geithner, former US treasury secretary, said that he refused to cooperate in a plot against the then Italian prime minister in the autumn of 2011. “European officials contacted us with a plot to find a way of forcing the Italian Premier Berlusconi to stand down,” Geithner was quoted in La Stampa as saying in his new book – Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises.

The EU officials wanted their US counterparts to refuse to back an Italian rescue package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) unless Berlusconi resigned, Geithner alleged. The former treasury secretary claimed that he refused to go along with the plot, telling the Europeans “we cannot have blood on our hands.”

Blissful high level ignorance from ANSA:

Napolitano didn’t participate in Berlusconi ‘plot’ meetings

  • Geithner book feeds speculation Berlusconi was felled in 2011

President Giorgio Napolitano said in a statement Wednesday that he did not participate in any of the international meetings in which European officials allegedly plotted to bring down Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2011.

Rumours that the third Berlusconi’s government was scuppered by a conspiracy were fueled this week by a new book by former US Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner. The former Treasury secretary wrote that in 2011, at a G-20 meeting, Europeans were pushing the White House to get involved in pressuring Berlusconi out of office, as Italy risked a Greek-style financial meltdown with the spread between Italian 10-year bonds and their German counterpart ballooning to over 500 points and yields above 7%.

Napolitano was instrumental in engineering the emergency technocrat administration led by ex-premier Mario Monti that replaced Berlusconi’s administration in November 2011.

After the jump, the latest anxieties from Greece, More Ukrainian turmoil and Russian retaliation [including a lethal blow the U.S. space program], a Georgian courtship, Turkish outrage, agrofuel and presidential woes in Latin America, Australian austerity run amok, a blow for GMOs in Pakistan, Thai turmoil, Southern Korean economic woes, bubble-plugging measures, corruption and economic and corporate imperialism in China, economic winners and losers in China, Trans-Pacific Partnership wheeling and dealing, MERS warnings, historical tragedy, and the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now! . . .
Continue reading

Headlines: Health, wealth, pols crooks


Today’s headlines from the realms of politics, economics, and the ecology, are weighted heavily toward the U.S. and Asia, with relatively little form Europe, save Greece.

There’s also plenty on the environment, including lots in the latest episode of Fukushimapocalypse Now!

We begin with a global issue, a reminder of what always lurks within the world around us. From Channel NewsAsia Singapore:

WHO to hold emergency talks on deadly MERS virus Tuesday

The World Health Organization said Friday it would hold an emergency meeting next week on the deadly MERS virus, amid concern over the rising number of cases in several countries.

The UN health agency will host the emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the worrying spread of the virus, which in less than two years has killed 126 people in Saudi Arabia alone, spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told reporters in Geneva.

The WHO’s emergency committee has already met four times to discuss the mysterious corona virus, which surfaced in mid-2012.

More on an issue we’ve covered before via the Oakland Tribune:

UC nonresident students increase as Californians’ admissions slow

As more California high school seniors fight for spaces at popular UC campuses, the universities have flung open their doors to students from other states and countries, more than tripling the ranks of out-of-state freshmen in the past five years.

Freshmen from outside the Golden State now make up almost 30 percent of their class at UC Berkeley and UCLA, up from just over 10 percent four years earlier, a new analysis by this newspaper shows.

The shift feels like a betrayal to some families coping with — or fearing — rejection by the distinguished university system, which was built by and for Californians but now is turning them away in record numbers.

CNBC covers a surprising statistic:

CNBC survey shows millionaires want higher taxes to fix inequality

CNBC’s first-ever Millionaire Survey reveals that 51 percent of American millionaires believe inequality is a “major problem” for the U.S., and of those, nearly two-thirds support higher taxes on the wealthy and a higher minimum wage as ways to narrow the wealth gap.

The findings show that—far from being a purely self-interested voting bloc—American millionaires have complicated views when it comes to the wealth gap and opportunity in America. They are unashamed of their own wealth and attribute their success to hard work, smart investing and savings. They also believe that anyone in America can get wealthy if they work hard.

Yet millionaires also believe that cultural and family issues prevent many Americans from climbing the wealth ladder. They advocate improved education, higher taxes on the wealthy and better savings incentives for the poor and middle class as important changes that would reduce inequality.

From the Washington Post suicidal behavior reconsidered:

Split appears in GOP as more call for raising federal minimum wage

Several leading Republicans have called for raising the federal minimum wage and others are speaking more forcefully about the party’s failure to connect with low-income Americans — stances that are causing a growing rift within the party over how best to address the gulf between the rich and poor.

Another Republican reminded of consequences, via  United Press International:

FBI arrests man accused of threatening Boehner over unemployment insurance

Brandon James Thompson, of New Castle, Ind., angered over the House’s failure to pass an emergency unemployment extension, admitted to sending threatening messages to House Speaker John Boehner and his wife.

The FBI arrested an Indiana man Thursday night for allegedly threatening to kill House Speaker John Boehner for delaying a vote on extending emergency unemployment insurance.

Brandon James Thompson, 32, of New Castle, Ind., was taken into custody at his home Thursday night and faces federal charges for making phone and email threats to an elected official.

According to an FBI affidavit, Thompson admitted to sending threatening messages to the Ohio Republican’s congressional website using his neighbor’s wifi, and leaving threatening voicemails on Boehner’s wife Debbie’s personal cellphone.

USA TODAY covers woes to come:

3 generations face USA’s retirement crisis

The retirement crisis in America is not contained to any one generation. Across the country, people of all ages are struggling with stagnant wages, rising living expenses, and an overall sluggish economy. Some are closer to their golden years than others, but one thing is clear: There are three unique generations with very different retirements ahead of them.

Many workers are simply trying to recover from the financial meltdown that took place more than five years ago. According to the 15th Annual Transamerica Retirement survey, one of the largest and longest-running national surveys of its kind, 35% of workers believe the Great Recession has not yet ended. That figure rises to 40% among Baby Boomers. Meanwhile, 65% of workers believe the recession has ended, but they have mixed views about the strength of the recovery. Only 14% say they have fully recovered financially from the historic downturn.

“Experts have long written about the changing retirement landscape over the past century,” said Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. “Times are changing so rapidly that the retirements of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials will not only be a radical departure from their parents’ generations but from each other as well.”

The same basic story form another angle via Salon:

401(k)s are retirement robbery: How the Koch brothers, Wall Street and politicians conspire to drain Social Security

The decades-long tale of how the Kochs, Reagan, Wall Street and even Democrats have tried to gut Social Security

Excerpted from “Social Insecurity: 401(k)s and the Retirement Crisis”

On the eve of the Reagan presidency in 1980, Milton and Rose Friedman published “Free to Choose,” a proposal for gradually phasing out Social Security. The entitlements of retirees would be honored as would the accumulated credits of contributors who had not yet retired. But no new payroll taxes would be collected. The final elimination of Social Security would allow “individuals to provide for their own retirement as they wish.” Among the advantages would be that “it would add to personal saving and so lead to a higher rate of capital formation [and] stimulate the development and expansion of private pension plans.” While the Friedmans argued for such a plan, they acknowledged that immediate privatization of retirement was unrealistic in the current political climate, but they would accept incremental reforms with the hope that one day total privatization would become politically feasible.

That same year, the conservative Koch brothers-financed Cato Institute published “Social Security: The Inherent Contradiction,” by Peter Ferrara, which argued that instead of being required to participate in Social Security, people should “be allowed to choose from a variety of insurance and investment options offered in the private market. The previous year, two years after its founding in 1977, the institute had published an article by Carolyn Weaver in which she made the case for privatization, and in 1980 it also sponsored a conference on Social Security privatization that drew, among others, two hundred congressional staffers.

And yet another erosion from Pacific Standard:

Are Sundays Dying?

A battle against leisure is unfolding. In America, it’s a war that has been raging since the Puritan age.

Though recently American leisure time has appeared to rise, the averages are skewed by undereducated and lower-income men, who are likely “unemployed or underemployed,” as the Washington Post has noted. Work-life balances are abominable when compared to other developed countries. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the “average American” is actually working “one month” more a year than he or she was in 1976.

But Sunday, the weekend day that even Puritans blocked off for worship and rest (a Puritan poet once pondered “over whether closing a stable door that was blowing in the wind constituted an act of work which would profane the Sabbath”), is also beginning to look more and more like just another day of the work week.

On the other hand, given the narcissism of some of our leisure time habits. . .From  United Press International:

Hundreds of ATV riders in Utah threaten sacred Navajo burial ground to protest federal government

  • Illegal route runs through protected Native American land, forced military veterans retreat to relocate.

Protesters who say the Bureau of Land Management has no right to criminalize use of ATVs in Utah’s Recapture Canyon plan to demonstrate today by illegally riding their vehicles through the protected land – a move that has drawn the ire of Native Americans and displaced a veterans retreat.

“It is sad that irreplaceable treasures of importance to all Americans would be sacrificed on the altar of anti-government fervor,” Jerry Spangler, executive director of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance said in a statement. “It is worse that protesters would be so blinded to their own insensitivity as to what others consider to be sacred treasures of their past.”

Willie Grayeyes, chair of a nonprofit that lobbies to protect Navajo land, was offended at both the protesters’ dismissive attitude toward Native American culture and their disrespect for the American veterans who had to move their long-scheduled retreat to ensure it could be held in peace.

From the Washington Post, better read than dead?:

The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads

What if someone had already figured out the answers to the world’s most pressing policy problems, but those solutions were buried deep in a PDF, somewhere nobody will ever read them?

According to a recent report by the World Bank, that scenario is not so far-fetched. The bank is one of those high-minded organizations — Washington is full of them — that release hundreds, maybe thousands, of reports a year on policy issues big and small. Many of these reports are long and highly technical, and just about all of them get released to the world as a PDF report posted to the organization’s Web site.

The World Bank recently decided to ask an important question: Is anyone actually reading these things? They dug into their Web site traffic data and came to the following conclusions: Nearly one-third of their PDF reports had never been downloaded, not even once. Another 40 percent of their reports had been downloaded fewer than 100 times. Only 13 percent had seen more than 250 downloads in their lifetimes. Since most World Bank reports have a stated objective of informing public debate or government policy, this seems like a pretty lousy track record.

Bloomberg covers business as usual:

Swisspartners Ends U.S. Probe With Non-Prosecution Deal

Swisspartners Group, a Zurich-based money-manager, resolved a U.S. criminal tax probe by paying $4.4 million for helping American clients use secret accounts to evade taxes. In return, the government agreed not to prosecute the firm, citing its “extraordinary cooperation.”

The agreement resulted from Swisspartners’ voluntary production of the files for about 110 U.S. taxpayer clients, according to the Justice Department and Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.

“The extraordinary cooperation of Swisspartners has enabled us to identify U.S. tax cheats who have hidden behind phony offshore trusts and foundations,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole said today in a statement. “In this and other cases around the world we will continue to provide substantial credit for prompt and full cooperation.”

The Washington Post covers an austerian conundrum:

America’s transportation needs are huge. Too bad the way we fund them is broken.

You’ve read the headlines about nearly one in four of America’s bridges being either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, right? The $59 billion backlog for commuter railway maintenance? The $324 per year in mechanic visits that each U.S. motorist incurs by driving on deteriorated roads?

America has a transportation funding problem. And if Congress doesn’t fix it this summer, it could start doing some real damage.

First, a few basics. Most big transportation projects — bridge repairs, new highways, intercity rail — are paid for with a stack of local, state, and federal funds. The federal contribution ranges between 35 percent and 95 percent of a state’s total transportation budget, and is mostly supplied by the Highway Trust Fund. The Highway Trust Fund is mostly supplied by the federal gas tax, which is a robust stream of money that can’t be used for anything other than transportation.

The problem for funding is that Americans are actually using less gas than they used to — both because they aren’t driving as much, and cars are getting more efficient. Meanwhile, Congress hasn’t raised the gas tax from 18.4 cents per gallon since 1994, which is now far behind what it was then when you take inflation into account.

From the  Los Angeles Times, the voice of reason from an unexpected quarter:

Jackie Lacey says L.A. County should stop locking up so many people

You wouldn’t expect the county’s top prosecutor to step up to a microphone and say it’s time to stop locking up so many people. But that’s exactly what L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey did last week. She told the county Board of Supervisors that, in her opinion, 1,000 or more people with mental illness who are currently incarcerated should probably be somewhere other than in jail.

“It is clear, even to those of us in law enforcement, that we can do better in Los Angeles County,” she said, which is why she’s leading a task force that is studying less expensive and more effective alternatives than incarceration. “The current system is, simply put, unjust.”

Despite hearing this, the supervisors voted to proceed with a nearly $2-billion jail construction project designed to accommodate about 3,200 inmates with a mental illness — the same number currently locked up.

From Business Insider, the Washington Post’s new owner’s other business demonstrates utter greed:

Amazon Is Claiming Exclusive Rights To A Basic Version Of An Extremely Common Practice

A photography site called DIY Photography wrote this week that the Amazon corporation applied for—and received—a patent for the process of taking a picture of an object against a white background.

Despite the technical detail in the patent documentation, the DIY site says, Amazon is ultimately claiming exclusive rights to a basic version of an extremely common practice:

The patent number is 8,676,045B1 and you can read the entire boring text on USPTO, or just about any basic studio photography book.

Crooked Timber raises the right question:

Step away from that white background

As you probably know, several of us at CT are big photography enthusiasts. While we seem to be more interested in taking photos of nature and architecture, next time we want to shoot a family portrait or an item, we’ll have to be careful with our approach. The US Patent Office recently granted Amazon a patent for taking photos against a white background. For real. So is their plan to start trolling portrait studios and Ebay/Etsy sellers to see whom they can sue?

I am no lawyer, but the language seems rather vague. For example, “a top surface of the elevated platform reflects light emanating from the background such that the elevated platform appears white”. So what level of off-white should a photographer strive for to avoid litigation?

Having shot many a picture for publication we cam attest to the fact that Amazon has basically tried to patent the wheel.

On to Europe, first from Lisbon with Europe Online:

Ratings firms raise Portugal’s debt outlook

Portugal received a vote of confidence from credit ratings agencies Friday for the first time since the country’s sovereign-debt crisis began.

Moody’s Investors Service raised the debt rating to Ba2, from Ba3, citing an improved financial position and Lisbon’s decision not to seek additional aid after its bailout programme expires at the end of this month.

“Portugal’s economic recovery is gaining momentum, with signs of broadening beyond exports, which continue to perform strongly,” Moody’s said. The move followed a revised outlook from negative to stable by Standard and Poor’s Ratings Services earlier in the day.

Italy next, with Corruptio berlusconii from Deutsche Welle:

Berlusconi associate’s conviction upheld

An Italian court has upheld the conviction of retired parliamentarian Marcello Dell’Utri for ties to the Sicilian Mafia. Dell’Utri is a close associate of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Dell’Utri was not present when Italy’s highest appeals court upheld his seven-year prison sentence on Friday. He had fled to Lebanon last month in order to avoid arrest.

The close Berlusconi associate (pictured center) is currently in police custody at a hospital in Beirut while Italian authorities seek his extradition.

In 2010, a Palermo court convicted Dell’Utri of acting as a mediator between the Sicilian Mafia and the Milan business elite from 1974-1992. The decision by the Court of Cassation on Friday means his conviction is now final and can no longer be appealed.

After the jump, the latest from grief from Greece, Ukrainian turmoil, a Turkish tantrum, economic alarms form Latin America, Indian anxieties in Washington, Indonesian bankster woes, Australian bankster extravagance, Thai turmoil, Chinese housing, food & economic uncertainties, environmental ills, and the latest chapter of Fumkshimapocalypse Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines: Econotrix, politrix & envirotrix


We open today’s collection of headlines from the worlds of politics, economics, and the environment with this, a creation of Vangelis Papavasiliou of the Greek paper Eleftherotypia:

In today’s economy, recovery is a matter of perspective.

In today’s economy, recovery is a matter of perspective.

From USA TODAY, a reminder of just how flimsy are the underpinnings of the new, picoseconds-fast transactions on which our Brave New Financial Order is founded:

Four-year Flash Crash anniversary haunts markets

This week marks the fourth anniversary of the brutal flash crash that rocked markets on May 6, 2010, and is a stark reminder of how little has changed.

Even four years after the crash that wiped out $1 trillion in wealth in the blink of an eye, investors and academics still haven’t agreed on what caused one of the most vicious and inexplicable short circuiting of markets to occur.

On that day, the Dow Jones industrial average plunged roughly 1,000 points only to recover in minutes. High-frequency computerized trading, believed to at least be part of the cause of the breakdown, is still a major force in the markets. There have been tweaks made to “circuit breakers,” or thresholds of volatility that cause trading individual stocks or the market to be halted. But these measures are widely viewed as putting Band-Aids on an open wound — it might offer some comfort, but does little to fix the underlying problem.

“It can still happen now, and it does in certain (individual stocks),” says Joe Saluzzi, trader at Themis Trading.

Perhaps the reason why the problem isn’t being addressed is that we don’t really know — even four year later — what caused the Flash Crash. And as recently as 2013, there have been other widespread malfunctions in the market that remain largely mysteries. Regarding the Flash Crash of 2010, it took roughly five months before regulators, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission released a report documenting the events that shook the markets. The report largely blames the “fragmented” stock market where there are multiple marketplaces exchanging prices with each other.

From Business Insider, the proceeds of plunder:

A Hedge Fund Manager Just Made The Biggest Home Purchase In US History

A Hamptons property has just taken the title of “most expensive home ever sold in the U.S.”

The 18-acre expanse in East Hampton just sold for $147 million to hedge-fund manager Barry Rosenstein of Jana Partners, according to Curbed Hamptons.

Rosenstein’s new neighbors on exclusive Further Lane include Jerry Seinfeld, hedge-fund manager Jim Chanos, and art dealer Larry Gagosian.

From Reuters, just a cost of doing business:

Credit Suisse In Talks To Pay $1.6 Billion To Resolve U.S. Tax Probe: Source

Credit Suisse Group AG is in talks with the U.S. Justice Department to pay as much as $1.6 billion to resolve an investigation into the bank’s role in helping Americans evade U.S. taxes, a person familiar with the matter said on Monday.

The penalty could be roughly twice the amount paid by UBS AG, which settled similar charges in 2009 for $780 million and agreed to identify its customers.

Prosecutors have also been pushing for Credit Suisse to plead guilty in connection with the probe, two people with knowledge of the talks said.

From Aviation Week, how the elite travels, at least on one Abu Dhabi-based airline:

Etihad Unveils Three-Room ‘Residence’ On A380 Fleet

All of the three-class A380s will seat 498, with two seats in “residence,” nine “apartments” (first class), 70 in business and 417 economy seats.

Etihad will be the second airline to offer showers on board the A380, a concept that has been introduced by its rival Emirates. There will be one shower available for the nine first class passengers, but the real innovation is the “residence.” It is located to the left and aft of the front staircase and consists of three rooms: A living room certified for two passengers during take-off and landing, a bathroom with a shower,  and the bedroom in the very front of the upper deck. The bedroom does not have windows. Other A380 operators have used the room next to the staircase for showers (Emirates) or for small lounge areas (Air France, Qantas). By creating the “residence” (125 square feet), Etihad is not giving up revenue space.

According to Chief Commercial Officer Peter Baumgartner, “residence” is going to be about three times as expensive as regular first class. A flight from Abu Dhabi to London would be around $20,000 one-way, but it can be used for two passengers. Etihad is targeting high net worth individuals who would otherwise use a private jet for long haul travel.

USA TODAY covers reality for some of the rest of us:

Single women say their income doesn’t cover expenses

Across the country, single women feel worse than both men and any age group about their ability to make ends meet. In a survey of 1,200 adults given exclusively to USA TODAY by Consumers’ Research, the data show that about 60% of single women say they don’t earn enough to cover their expenses.

That’s compared with 45% of everyone surveyed, and 57% of those ages 50 to 59, the group with the highest percentage who said they don’t make enough to cover expenses.

Do Americans not make enough money, or are they living beyond their means?

“I would say that those two are the same thing,” says Joe Colangelo, executive director of Consumers’ Research. “If you aren’t making enough to support your lifestyle, you need to make some life and habit changes.”

And from PandoDaily, another form of profitable plunder:

LEAKED: Docs obtained by Pando show how a Wall Street giant is guaranteed huge fees from taxpayers on risky pension investments

Thanks to confidential documents exclusively obtained by Pando, we can now see some of the language and fee structures in the agreements between the “alternative investment” industry and major public pension funds. Taken together, the documents raise serious questions about whether the government employees, trustees and politicians overseeing major public pension funds are shirking their fiduciary responsibilities under the law when they are cementing “alternative” investment deals.

The documents, which were involved in a recent SEC inquiry into the $14.5 billion Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS), were handed to us by SEC whistleblower Chris Tobe, an investment consultant and former trustee of the KRS. Tobe has also written a book — “Kentucky Fried Pensions” — about the scandalous state of the Kentucky public pensions system.

The documents provided by Tobe (embedded below) specifically detail Kentucky’s dealings with Blackstone – a giant Wall Street investment firm which has deployed a platoon of registered lobbyists in Kentucky and whose employees are major financial backers of Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

From Reuters, we won’t hold our breath:

U.S. attorney general says banks may face criminal cases soon

The U.S. Justice Department is pursuing criminal investigations of financial institutions that could result in action in the coming weeks and months, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a video, adding that no company was “too big to jail.”

The comments, made in a video posted on the Justice Department’s website on Monday, came as federal prosecutors push two banks, BNP Paribas SA (BNPP.PA) and Credit Suisse AG (MLPN.P), to plead guilty to criminal charges to resolve investigations into sanctions and tax violations, respectively, according to people familiar with the probes.

While Holder did not name any banks, he said he is personally monitoring the ongoing investigations into financial institutions and is “resolved to seeing them through.”

The Los Angeles Times covers gentrification of another sort:

Return of ‘mansionization’ has some L.A. homeowners grumbling

Six years ago, Los Angeles politicians imposed new limits on the size of new and renovated houses, promising to rein in what they called “homes on steroids” dwarfing blocks of smaller buildings.

But as the housing market rebounds and construction picks up, many homeowners complain that “mansionization” has revved up — reigniting long-standing policy battles and sometimes bitter fence fights over the face and feel of L.A.’s neighborhoods.

Builders are snapping up smaller, older homes, razing them and replacing them with bigger dwellings. Increasingly, sleek, square structures are popping up along streets known for quaint bungalows.

Opening the tent flap for the camel’s nose, via the New York Times:

Supreme Court Allows Prayers at Town Meetings

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that divided the court’s more conservative members from its liberal ones, said the prayers were merely ceremonial. They were neither unduly sectarian nor likely to make members of other faiths feel unwelcome.

“Ceremonial prayer,” he wrote, “is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”

Off to Europe, starting with some boosterism from BBC News:

EU raises its growth forecast for 2014

The European Commission has raised its growth forecast for the EU, saying that “the recovery has taken hold”.

The 26 nations of the EU are forecast to grow by 1.6% for 2014, a touch higher than the forecast of 1.5% made in late February. The growth forecast for the 18-nation eurozone remains at 1.2% for 2014.

The Commission expects the jobs market to continue to improve, forecasting EU unemployment will fall to 10.1% this year. In March, the rate was 10.5%

And from New Europe, giving the banksters a freer hand:

The EU partially suspended talks to hold a three-month public consultation over worries about the investment rules

Germany’s vice chancellor is underlining doubts about the need for new investment rules in a proposed European Union-U.S. trade deal — a thorny issue in the talks.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel on Monday voiced strong support for the overall trade deal but said both sides already have a “sophisticated, legally safe position for investors” so he doesn’t see the need for a special agreement on that aspect. Germany has the EU’s biggest economy.

The EU partially suspended talks to hold a three-month public consultation over worries about the investment rules. Critics and some officials previously voiced unease over what they said were loopholes that might expose governments to lawsuits by multinational companies.

Off to Norway, and a ready customer from abroad via TheLocal.no:

Chinese tycoon keen to buy chunk of Norway

A Chinese property tycoon shut out by Iceland after he sought to buy a vast tract of the country is turning his attention to Norway, he told AFP on Monday.

Huang Nubo, founder of Chinese property firm Zhongkun Group, said in a telephone interview that he still wants to develop high-end resorts in northern Europe and plans to invest 80 million euros ($111 million) in Norway over the next five to 10 years.

His statement comes as a huge tract of the Arctic Svalbard Islands has been put up for sale by Henning Horn, a Norwegian industrialist and farmer, and his sisters Elin and Kari.

And some Norse doubts via New Europe:

70 percent of Norwegians opposes joining the EU

Skepticism over joining EU remains strong in Norway

More Norwegians are against seeking European Union (EU) membership today than several decades ago, making the prospect of Norway joining the 28-member bloc look even dimmer.

A new opinion poll, the Norwegian news agency NTB reported Monday, shows that 70 percent of Norwegians opposes joining the EU.

Only 20.2 percent of respondents in the poll, which was carried out by the agency Sentio for Norwegian-language newspapers “Klassekampen” and “Nationen,” were in favor of Norway joining the EU.

Next up France, and similar doubts from RFI:

Majority of French want smaller EU, poll

A new poll suggests a majority of French people would like the European Union to be smaller.

In a poll published on Monday, conducted by Viavoice for the French newspaper Libération, 64 per cent of those surveyed say they would prefer the European Union to centre around core countries, such as the euro countries, or the six founder-member states: France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Twenty per cent of those polled are happy with the current membership and a mere seven per cent favour further EU enlargement.

49 per cent associate the EU with something negative while only 45 say for them it represents something positive.

From Europe Online, skepticism:

France set to miss deficit goal despite spending cuts, EU predicts
Europe

France has not gone far enough to whittle its deficit down to within EU limits, a new forecast predicted Monday, despite unprecedented cuts introduced by Paris.

France has struggled to rev up its economy – the second largest in the European Union – with warnings rampant about its sluggish competitiveness. There are concerns that Paris’ economic woes could complicate the recovery underway in the crisis-battered eurozone.

Last year, the EU gave France a reprieve by granting it two extra years – until 2015 – to bring its deficit below 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

And from Agence France-Presse, a rare win:

France Definitively Bans Genetically Modified Corn

France definitively banned the growing of genetically modified corn on Monday after its highest court and Senate both confirmed an existing ban.

A grouping of leftist senators including members of the ruling Socialists, Greens and Communists approved a law banning MON810, a type of GM corn produced by US firm Monsanto, that had already been passed by the lower house of parliament, overcoming opposition from right-wing members.

At the same time, the Council of State rejected a request from corn producers to overturn the ban on MON810.

New up Switzerland, and the possible end of a centuries’ old stance from TheLocal.ch:

Swiss ‘likely to vote on EU ties in two years’

Swiss citizens will likely go the polls in two years to decide on Switzerland’s future ties with the European Union, the country’s president Didier Burkhalter says.

In an interview published on Sunday by the German-language weekly NZZ am Sonntag, Burkhalter said it was his personal view that a referendum will be held in 2016 on bilateral relations with the EU.

“The decision will be at the end of a long process that has only just begun,” Burkhalter, a member of the centre-right Liberal party from Neuchâtel, told the newspaper.

“Until then there is still a tough obstacle course ahead of us.”

Spain next, and dismal numbers from TheLocal.es:

Half of young Spaniards have no money coming in

Almost half of all Spaniards aged 16 to 29 receive neither a salary nor government benefits while only one in five can afford to fly the family coop, the startling results from a new study reveal.

A total of 47.5 percent of young Spaniards receive no formal income at all, the study by youth lobby group CJE shows.

Youth unemployment is currently 55 percent but the CJE study shows the situation is made even worse by the precarious nature of that employment.

With just 34 percent of people aged 16 to 29 in Spain actually working, more that half of people in this age group are on temporary contracts. Of those contracts, 46.4 percent are of less than 12 months duration.

From the Independent, a lesson only half-learned:

Spain is inviting back Jews expelled from the country in the 16th Century. But don’t mention the Muslims

  • Our cousins in Madrid and Lisbon simply don’t want Muslims to come to Europe

The year of darkness, of course, was 1492, when the Moorish kingdom of Granada surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella. Christian power was restored to the lands in which Muslims and Jews had lived together for hundreds of years and had rescued some of the great works of classical literature – by way of Baghdad – for us to study. Save for those who converted to Christianity or died at the stake – at least 1,000 Jews, perhaps as many as 10,000, among them – the entire Muslim and Jewish communities were thrown out of Spain and Portugal by the early 17th century. They scattered, to Morocco, Algeria, Bosnia, Greece and Turkey. Which is why the glories of Andalusian architecture can still be found in north Africa. The Sephardic (Spanish) Jews spoke Ladino, which was still understood in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of the 1990s. In just over 100 years, the Christian monarchy of Spain had expelled half a million Muslims and between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews. There are now around 3.5 million Sephardic Jews in the world. Their ancient homes also still exist in Spain.

But now Spain and Portugal want to make amends, so we are told. They will give citizenship – full passports – to the descendants of families expelled from their countries. The government regards the expulsions as “a tragedy”, or – in the words of Spain’s justice minister – a “historical error”. It was, of course, an ethnic cleansing, a massive crime against humanity, but don’t let’s expect too much from our Spanish and Portuguese friends, as there are, unfortunately, a few problems. For example: Muslims need not apply.

And from TheLocal.es, what a dose of bananas didn’t cure:

‘They called me a monkey so I danced like one’

A new racism scandal erupted in Spanish football after fans made monkey chants at Levante’s Senegalese midfielder Pape Diop, just a week after Barcelona defender Dani Alves denounced a banana-thrower.

The 28-year-old Diop accused Atletico Madrid fans of subjecting him to abuse as his side inflicted a shock 2-0 defeat on the Liga leaders on Sunday.

He reacted by dancing in front of the disconsolate travelling fans at the final whistle Sunday, and television images showed some furious Atletico supporters making monkey gestures.

“It affected me a lot,” Diop said. “I went to take a corner and some of the Atletico fans began to make monkey chants. To play it down, I started to dance, but I didn’t insult anyone,” the player said.

Italy next, and a tongue-lashing from the top via ANSA:

Renzi says Italy must change or be EU laggards

  • Premier admits delay on institutional reforms is ‘costly’

Premier Matteo Renzi said Monday that the government’s reform programme was necessary to stop Italy becoming one of the European Union’s worst-performing States.

“Our ideas are not the result of improvisation,” Renzi told a seminar on the institutional reforms organised by his centre-left Democratic Party (PD). “We are anxious for change and we have to produce fast results or we won’t have credibility in the European Union.

“We are certain that if Italy changes, it’ll be at the helm. Otherwise it’ll become a laggard”. Renzi, who was sworn in as Italy’s youngest premier aged 39 in February, has presented a bill to change the Constitutional to overhaul the country’s costly, slow-moving political machinery.

From ANSA, the bleak numbers continue:

Italian unemployment worse than expected, says EU and Istat

  • Between 12.7%-12.8% in 2014, with ‘marginal improvement’ in 2015

Both the European Union and Italy’s national statistics agency on Monday revised upwards their forecasts of Italian unemployment for this year and the next. Italy’s unemployment rate will grow to 12.7% in 2014, up 0.5% on the year, according to national statistics agency Istat.

Light improvement is expected in the second half of the year, preceding a drop to 12.4% in 2015, added Istat.

Meanwhile the European Commission predicted Italy’s unemployment rate in 2014 to be 12.8%, “a new high”, as opposed to the 12.6% rate predicted in February.

From TheLocal.it, hard times intolerance, as when adults fear cooties:

‘We don’t want our kids to go on migrant bus’

A group of parents from Sicily refused to let their children go on a school trip because the bus they would have travelled on had previously transported migrants “suffering from diseases”.

The children, from Giacomo Albo di Modica school in Ragusa, had been due to go on the trip on Monday, but a group of about 60 parents rallied against it, saying “the risk of them catching a disease is too great, and we don’t want to take that risk,” according to a report in La Repubblica.

The children would have travelled on one of the buses, chartered by the local council, used to transport migrants from the port of Pozzallo to an emergency holding centre between Comiso and Ragusa in recent days, the newspaper said.

From New Europe, begging the question, as in is this real anti-semitism, or the sort redefined by Israeli media-spinners in which legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies has been redefined as racism:

The number of Internet attacks, including texts, photos and videos, jumped to 156 in 2013 from 82 in 2012

Annual report on Anti-Semitism in Czech Republic registers steep increase of Internet attacks

A new study by Prague’s Jewish community has registered a significant increase of attacks against Jews on the Internet for the second straight year.

The annual report on anti-Semitism released Monday said the number of Internet attacks, including texts, photos and videos, jumped to 156 in 2013 from 82 in 2012. The report said the pro-Israeli stance of the Czech government was among the reasons for the attacks.

Besides the Internet attacks, it said anti-Semitism in the Czech Republic remains at a relatively low level with one physical attack registered last year and three attacks on Jewish property.

After the jump the latest from Greece, new developments in Latin America, mixed signals for the Chinese economy, a host of environmental alarm bells, and the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypose Now!. . . Continue reading

Headlines: Corps, classes, meds, mayhem, more


Today’s collection of headlines from the realms of politics, economics, human behavior, and the environment begins with a reminder that Big Pharma all too often rushes too soon to market. From the McClatchy Washington Bureau:

Convicted of murder, soldier blames anti-smoking drug

While his homicidal claim is rare — [Army Pfc. George D.B] MacDonald may be the first, and so far only, murder defendant to go all the way to trial with a Chantix defense — questions about the drug’s safety are not.

Others have blamed the prescription pill for suicides, suicidal thoughts or other psychiatric problems. More than 2,000 joined in lawsuits against Pfizer, the drug’s manufacturer. Most have largely since been settled, at a cost to Pfizer of at least $299 million.

Chantix sales, meanwhile, totaled $486 million during the first nine months of 2013.

On May 13, MacDonald will get one more chance to plead his case when the nation’s top military appeals court will decide whether the trial judge erred when he quashed a wide-ranging subpoena for Pfizer documents. The documents, MacDonald’s lawyers say, might have helped prove the potential dangers of Chantix.

We’ll add an older headline to impart context. From Al Jazeera, 21 November 2013:

FDA: Anti-smoking drug Chantix linked to more than 500 suicides

Another military medical scandal from United Press International:

Phoenix VA officials on leave after ‘secret list’ scandal that let vets die waiting for care

Official: “These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken.”

The director and two other officials of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare System (PVAHS) have been placed on administrative leave in light of the recently revealed scandal that allowed over forty veterans to die while waiting for medical care and falsified records to hide the lengthy wait times from the federal government.

In an exclusive interview with CNN Investigative, Dr. Same Foote, a veteran doctor just retired after 24 years with the VA system in Phoenix, blew the whistle on PVAHS maintaining two separate records of waiting lists — one fake list to convince Washington they were providing timely appointments (14-30 days is the expected turnaround standard for timely care required by the VA) and another real but secret list where veterans’ wait for an appointment could last over a year.

On Monday, President Barack Obama called on U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to investigate. As well, several members of Congress have called for hearings on the matter, at least three representatives publicly calling for PVAHS Director Sharon Helman’s resignation.

More from International Business Times:

Phoenix VA Scandal: New Charges And A Second Whistleblower

It’s getting even hotter in Phoenix, where government officials are investigating a scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System. At least 40 U.S. veterans allegedly died at the Phoenix VA waiting for appointments, and many of them were placed on a secret waiting list to hide the long wait times, according to Dr. Sam Foote, a physician at the Phoenix VA for 24 years who retired in December.

A second whistleblower, Dr. Katherine Mitchell, also a longtime physician at the Phoenix VA, came forward this week with more incendiary charges of poor treatment of veterans in Phoenix and accusations that officials shredded documents related to the investigation.

The controversy remains focused on the secret list, which was part of an elaborate scheme designed by VA managers in Phoenix to hide that 1,400 to 1,600 sick veterans were forced to wait months to see a doctor, according to Foote.

From MarketWatch, irrational exuberance:

Stocks are riding optimism, not earnings, to records

Pfizer, Disney, Tesla earnings on tap; Yellen scheduled for two-day testimony

Stocks are trading near record highs, and some say that’s more due to cautious optimism than solid fundamentals.

Stocks finished higher last week, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA -0.28%  set its first record close of the year. The S&P 500 index SPX -0.13%  passed into record close territory but couldn’t finish there. The Nasdaq Composite Index COMP -0.09%  closed up 1.2% on the week, though it’s still down 1.3% for the year.

The workings of the Dow suggest hope is driving prices rather than the bottom line. Sales and profit trends aren’t looking so hot, nor are corporate outlooks.

The Miami Herald notes a phenomenon much covered previously in this blog:

A Lopsided comeback: How the housing recovery favors the rich

An analysis of 11 years of home sales in South Florida, parsed by ZIP code, shows the boom, bust and recovery left a wider gap between the rich and the poor.

South Florida’s housing rebound has been remarkable.

Lured by Miami’s cachet as an emerging international gateway and luxury getaway, foreign investors ranging from Russian oligarchs to Brazilian supermodels to anonymous Channel Islands companies have rushed in with mounds of cash.

Along Miami Beach’s North Bay Drive and Sunset Islands, Key Biscayne and Gables Estates, the elite are shelling out millions of dollars to buy teardowns to make room for new Gatsby-esque spreads.

Developers are hawking one new pre-construction condominium tower after another. They feature gilded amenities fit for Dubai or Hong Kong (one will be topped with a private helipad; another, equipped with private automobile elevators). Glass-walled penthouses tout 360-degree views of the city, the ocean and Biscayne Bay.

And from Salon, some of the reasons for that growing divide:

How the rich stole our money — and made us think they were doing us a favor

Pushing people toward stocks, real estate and credit cards have all come at a cost — and with one goal in mind

If you’ve paid attention to the economy over the last few years, you’ve doubtless seen the charts and figures showing the decline of the American middle class in concert with the explosion of wealth for the super-rich. Wages have stagnated over the last 40 years even as productivity has increased, which is another way of saying that Americans are working harder but getting paid less. Unemployment remains stubbornly high even though corporate profits and the stock market are at or near record highs. Passive assets in the form of stocks and real estate, in other words, are doing very well. Wages for working people are not. Unfortunately for the middle class, however, the top 1 percent of incomes own almost 50 percent of asset wealth, and the top 10 percent own over 85 percent of it. When assets do well but wages don’t, the middle class suffers.

This ominous trend is particularly prominent in the United States. That shouldn’t surprise us: study after study shows that American policymakers operate almost purely on behalf of wealthy interests. Recent polling also proves that the American rich want policies that encourage the growth of asset values while lowering their own tax rates, and are especially keen on outcomes that favor themselves at the expense of the poor and middle class.

So why isn’t the 99 percent in open revolt? The answer lies in part because the top 1 percent have done an excellent job disguising the upward transfer of wealth by making the rest of us feel better off than we actually are while enriching themselves in the process.

From My Budget 360, job numbers in deeper context:

The disappearing labor force: Over 800K Americans drop out of labor force.

Since end of recession, those not in the labor force has grown from 80 million to 92 million. Workers younger than 55 lost jobs in April.

It might have come as a surprise to many that the pumped up stock market had no rally from the big employment report last week. Why? The unemployment rate fell from 6.7 to 6.3 percent. One survey showed a big jump in jobs added. As is usually the case, the devil is in the details. The unemployment rate fell dramatically because more than 800K Americans dropped out of the labor force. That is right, nearly 1 million people dropped out of the labor force. So of course this will make the rate look better than expected. In fact, since the recession ended we have added 12 million Americans to the category of “not in the labor force” which trumps even demographic changes. We have discussed that many Americans have no economic means to even retire. What was also interesting in the report is that workers younger than 55 actually lost jobs in the April report. So it is no surprise that the stock market actually turned lower with the whopping jobs report after people dug into the data.

From the neoliberal London Telegraph, thinly veiled exultation:

Shocking US jobs data impugns recovery, Fed tapering

  • Friday’s figures are a warning that the US recovery may be losing momentum

The US economy has delivered two minor shocks in a week, prompting concerns that bond tapering by the Federal Reserve may be doing more damage than expected.

Non-Farm Payrolls data released on Friday shows that the workforce shed 806,000 jobs in April, a stunning drop that cannot plausibly be blamed on the weather. Wage growth and hours worked were both flat and the manufacturing hours per week fell.

This follows news earlier in the week that the economy to a halt in the first quarter. Growth plummeted to 0.1pc and is now well below the Fed’s “stall speed” indicator. Analysts blamed this on the freezing polar vortex over the winter.

Yet the jobs data confirm a disturbingly weak picture. The headline unemployment rate fell to 6.3pc but that was only because the labour “participation rate” plummeted back to a modern-era low of 62.8pc, last seen in 1978 when there were far fewer women in the workforce. The rate for males is the lowest ever recorded at 69.1pc.

ABC News adds to the sense of things amiss:

Aging Baby Boomers Becoming the Roommate Generation

Rachel Caraviello, vice president of Affordable Living for the Aging (ALA), says that nationally there are about 130,000 households where the cohabiters are aged 50 or older, and where they have no familial relationship or romantic connection.

Caraviello views these arrangements as one more manifestation of the “sharing economy”: Here, one party typically is house-rich but cash-poor; and the other has money or services to contribute.

Rodney Harrell, PhD, a specialist on housing with the AARP’s Public Policy Institute, tells ABC News the range of agreements struck can include one party’s helping the other with shopping, transportation, cooking or informal care-giving. He believes there will be more demand for roommate and other sharing programs as the Baby Boom ages.

By 2030, according to the Federal Administration on Aging, one out of every five Americans will be 65 or older. The sheer size of the Boomer cohort, says Harrell, plus its declared desire to age “in place,” rather than in a nursing home, means having a roommate will be what he calls a growing niche option. “Few do it now,” he tells ABC, “but more could, or would, if that option were made more easily available.”

From Associated Press, it’s nice to be a rich city:

California city looks to sea for water in drought

With California in a drought, the coastal city of Santa Barbara is thinking about firing up a desalination plant that has been in storage for more than two decades.

The city built the plant in the 1990s during the last drought but turned it on for only three months after heavy rains eliminated the need for extra water.

Desalination involves removing salt from ocean water or groundwater, but it’s not a quick drought-relief option. It takes years of planning and overcoming red tape to launch a project.

And from United Press International, another enhancement for California’s Sterling [snicker] reputation:

San Jose State expels three students charged with hate crimes

Students referred to their black roommate as “three-fifths,” put bike lock around his neck, wrote racial slurs on surfaces and flaunted the Confederate flag.

Three white San Jose State students have been expelled after being charged with misdemeanor battery and hate crimes for racist treatment of their only black housemate. A fourth has been put on probation for the remainder of his time at the university.

All four students pled not guilty to the charges, brought about after their roommate’s parents first noticed a Confederate flag in the living room and racial slurs scrawled on the walls. Campus officials were notified and an investigation was held.

Among the findings in the investigation were numerous racially charged incidents directed at the victim, Donald Williams Jr. Among the offenses were nicknaming the victim “three-fifths,” a reference to the nineteenth century legislation that only counted a black votes as three-fifths the value of whites, and an incident where Williams was wrested to the ground while a bike lock was forced around his neck.

For our final U.S. post, irony from Raw Story:

Anti-gay NC GOP candidate outed as former female impersonator ‘Miss Mona Sinclair’

A GOP candidate for North Carolina State Senate — who supports the state’s ban on same-sex marriage — has been revealed as a former female impersonator and drag show emcee by the co-owner of the club where he once worked.

Steve Wiles, 34, of Kernersville, NC, worked at Club Odyssey until 2010 under the name ‘Mona Sinclair,’ former club owner Randy Duggins told the Winston-Salem Journal.

According to Duggins, Wiles was a frequent patron in the late 1990s at his nightclub where gay, lesbian and straight clientele gathered for weekly shows featuring female impersonators. Around 2001 and 2002, Wiles began working for Duggins as the show director and performance booker, while emceeing the show as Miss Mona Sinclair.

EUobserver takes us to Europe and fuelish anxieties:

Russian gas supplies ‘not guaranteed’, EU commissioner warns

A first mediation attempt by the EU between Russia and Ukraine on their gas price dispute on Friday (2 May) in Warsaw ended with no results other than the willingness to meet again.

“It is with concern that we see the security of supply for end consumers in EU and non-EU states like Ukraine is not guaranteed,” EU energy commissioner Guenther Oettinger told press after the meeting.

The energy ministers of Ukraine and Russia, for the first time at a table since the annexation of Crimea and the Russia-backed separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, decided to hold separate press points rather than join Oettinger in a common press conference.

On to Britain with the Observer and more hints of tough times ahead for the marginalized:

Two thirds of self-employed are not paying into pensions, report finds

  • Resolution Foundation finds majority of Britain’s 4.5m self-employed people are not making any retirement provision

Two-thirds of the growing number of self-employed workers are failing to pay anything into a pension policy, leaving themselves at risk of financial insecurity later in life, a report will warn this week.

The study on the changing nature of employment by the Resolution Foundation thinktank will paint a picture of a growing army of self-employed people who are mostly at ease with being their own bosses.

One in three self-employed people describe themselves as “entrepreneurs”, while three-quarters say that, rather than being forced into this type of employment because there was no alternative, they chose it from a range of options. But while there is a level of contentment among the self-employed, polling for the report by Ipsos MORI found that only 34% of them were paying into a pension and laying proper plans for life after work.

From Reuters, another instance of wretched excess, Old Blighty style:

$237 million apartment sale sets record

London’s red-hot property market has struck a new record with the sale of a 140 million pound ($237 million) unfurnished apartment, but even the developer of the opulent building warned that some asking prices in Britain were unsustainable.

Buoyed by the wealth of Russian oligarchs, Chinese tycoons and Arab sheikhs, London has become one of the most expensive markets on earth, raising concerns ahead of parliamentary elections in 2015 that locals are being squeezed out of the market.

“We’re in boom-time prices, more expensive than we’ve ever been in the history of mankind,” Nick Candy, one of the developers of London’s One Hyde Park luxury apartments, at the pinnacle of the capital’s super-prime residential sector, told Reuters.

A London Telegraph cartoon gives a sense of the high end bubble in the city:

BLOG London RE

From Europe Online, speech no longer so free:

Belgian police disperse hundreds at “anti-Semitic” congress

Belgian police dispersed a crowd of around 400 people on Sunday who had gathered for a congress condemned by Jewish groups as being anti-Semitic, according to Belga news agency.

Mayor Eric Tomas of Anderlecht – the Brussels suburb where the rally took place – had banned the gathering earlier Sunday citing risks to security and public order. The event organizers challenged the ban and said they would stay put while awaiting a court decision.

Attendees at the “First European Congress of Dissidence” were expected to include controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who has previously been fined for anti-Semitic remarks.

Event organiser, MP Laurent Louis, denied the accusations of anti-semitism surrounding the event.

On to Paris with TheLocal.fr and a French retreat:

France’s Carrefour to quit India: reports

Carrefour, the world’s second largest retailer, is working on a plan to exit India, media reports said Saturday, amid political uncertainty about the future of multi-brand retail in the South Asian giant.

The reports in the Times of India and Business Standard and other dailies come as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tipped to win India’s marathon general election which winds up in mid-May, declared it opposes allowing foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail.

Indian newspapers quoted unnamed sources in the France-based company as saying Carrefour had been working on an exit strategy for two weeks.

And from France 24, electioneering ahoy:

Will Anti-EU parties dominate upcoming European elections?

Last Thursday, [hard right National Front party leader Marine] Le Pen addressed thousands of supporters at a May Day rally in Paris, where she made a passionate appeal for a show of strength at the polls.

“On May 25, put an end to this system that despises you … turn your back on the dishonour and capitulation,” she told her supporters.

“No to Brussels, yes to France. Do not fall into the trap of abstention. Do not disappoint me, go and vote!”

According to a April 25 poll by CSA on behalf of the BFM-TV channel and French regional daily Nice-Matin, the FN will be battling it out with the centre-right UMP to come out on top among French voters, leaving the ruling Socialists in third place.

After the jump, the latest from Greece, Ukraine turmoil, Thai troubles, Taiwanese protests, Chinese puritanism, Japanese demographic decline, environmental anxieties, a celestial near-miss, antibiotic overdoses, and a world from the WTO — the World Toilet Organization — and more. . . Continue reading

Headlines: Class, wealth, pols, and ploys


We begin today’s collection of stories of economic, politics, resources, and the environment with a stark contrast from Bloomberg:

Miami’s Poor Live on $11 a Day as Boom Widens Wealth Gap

“Miami isn’t the gateway to Latin America; Miami has the same economic demographics as Latin America,” said Pedro “Joe” Greer, a doctor whose 25 years of work treating the homeless and uninsured there earned him the nation’s highest civilian honor — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — in 2009. “Seventy percent of the families we work with bring in less than $25,000 a year.”

Miami’s Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, is the third-highest among U.S. cities after Atlanta and New Orleans. It’s higher than in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro and mirrors Mexico City’s level. The city is also the toughest for low-wage workers to rise, according to a Bloomberg analysis of the upward mobility of fast-food employees. . .

Miami ranked No. 7 — above Dubai, Paris and Beijing — among “cities that matter” to high-net-worth investors, the 2014 Wealth Report by London-based consulting firm Knight Frank LLP shows. International buyers have purchased more than $10 billion of South Florida property since 2008, the Chicago-based National Association of Realtors says.

From Raw Story, a class clown:

PayPal exec drunkenly tweets late night insults at co-workers and resigns

A recently hired executive at the Internet banking company PayPal spent Friday night tweeting insults at his co-workers and announcing his resignation from the company. Business Insider reported that Rakesh “Rocky” Agrawal was attending Jazz Fest in New Orleans when he sent the now-deleted stream of poorly-spelled, vitriolic messages.

Agrawal posted a photo of himself with his middle finger raised with the caption, “Can’t wait to explain this.”

Around 1:00 a.m., Agrawal wrote, “Duck you Smedley you useless middle. manager,” which was followed by “Christina Smedley is a useless. Piece of shit.”

From Salon, a Silicon Volley:

The Internet’s inequality bomb: The crash is coming — but the 1 percent won’t feel a thing

  • Warnings of a tech bubble are growing more dire every day, but it’s regular people who stand to bear the brunt

Companies are frantically loading up on cash now, because they know– everybody knows — that the business cycle will inevitably turn down. With the vast majority of these start-ups a long, long way from turning a profit, it’s only prudent to stash away as much cash as you can while the getting is still good. Because, like it or not, sooner or later, the bubble will pop.

But if times are destined to get tough for even the current front-runners of the tech boom, then what does that mean for the rest of us? Because there’s a crucial difference between this boom and the last one that is not getting enough attention. Last time around, the average U.S. worker did pretty well: In the 1990s, the median wage rose steadily, while unemployment fell to its lowest point in generations. The economy as a whole added an incredible 21 million jobs. Point being: The prosperity was shared.

Compare that to the current tech boom. Wages have stagnated, and household income has fallen. Unemployment is still historically high and job growth has been tepid, at best. Even as all those billions of dollars of investor capital have poured into tech companies, workers — outside of a few regional hot spots like northern California — just aren’t reaping the kinds of benefits we would hope for in even a borderline healthy economy.

Europe next, starting with the Reykjavík Grapevine and the latest on a noxious memo from the office Icelandic Minister of the Interior Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir:

Leaked Memo Solely “To Impugn Reputation” Of Asylum Seeker

Reykjavík District Court has concluded, amongst other things, that the sole purpose for leaking the now-infamous memo on Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos was “to impugn his reputation” in the face of growing public protest over his treatment by the Ministry of the Interior.

RÚV reports that police authorities filed a motion with both the Reykjavík District Court and the Supreme Court, demanding that the news editor of mbl.is tell the police who wrote the original news story about Tony Omos, as well as whether and how they had access to the informal memo on Omos. Both courts denied the police’s request, saying that they had not significantly demonstrated that they had explored all investigative avenues before demanding journalists reveal their sources.

In the District Court’s opinion, however, they believe the memo was put together for the sole purpose of “impugning the reputation” of Omos, as public protest against his impending deportation was growing. The accusations made against Omos in the memo would later prove to be false and misleading.

ANSAmed takes us to Portugal and passing marks from the troikarchs:

Portugal passes latest troika test

  • 2014 growth to be at 1% of GDP, says deputy PM

he Portuguese government announced on Friday that the so-called troika of international creditors (ECB,EU, and IMF) had approved the efforts undertaken by the country to comply with the aid program agreed three years ago in exchange for a 76-billion-euro loan.

‘’The twelfth assessment was positive,’‘ Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas said in a press conference, underscoring the ‘’climate of confidence coming from all European markets.’‘ Portas added that the international creditors had urged the government to push forward with reforms that the opposition, unions and most citizens – including military and police associations – are against.

The deputy prime minister underscored that at the June 2011 swearing in of Pedro Passos Coelho’s conservative government, interest rates on ten-year government bonds had stood at 10.6%, whereas they have now dropped to 3.6%.

thinkSPAIN covers Labor Day outrage:

Protests in Barcelona and the Basque Country end in arson attacks and vandalism on high-street banks and wheelie-bins

DEMONSTRATIONS in Barcelona and the Basque Country turned violent after May Day with numerous arrests for setting fire to bins and vandalising branches of banks.

Financial entities in three provinces in the Basque Country suffered graffiti, broken windows due to stones thrown at them and in one case, flammable liquid thrown at it.

An 18-year-old man was arrested in San Sebastián yesterday (Friday) in the early hours of the morning throwing tins of paint at the shop fronts of four banks.

From the Guardian, another kind of battle centeerd around Franco family values:

Students at Spanish college fight ban on men using washing machines

  • Madrid residence threatens to expel male students who do their own laundry – they are told to find female friends to do it instead

Despite repeated calls for more than three years for a change in the rules, the code of conduct at the Duque de Ahumada de la Guardia Civil residence continues to specify that “use of the washing machines by male residents will result in expulsion, ranging from 15 days to three months, from the residence”.

Male students at the dorm, which caters for the children and grandchildren of Guardia Civil officers, are instead instructed to quietly pass their clothes to female friends to be washed.

The association that represents Guardia Civil officers is demanding that the rule be changed. “What is being asked of residents is obsolete, unjust, sexist and borderline ridiculous,” Francisco Cecilia, of the Unified Guardia Civil Association told El Mundo. “In today’s world, it makes no sense that male residents would have to secretly pass their clothes to a female or visit a laundromat to do their laundry.”

Kathimerini English takes us to Greek and pitch preparations:

Greece gears up for debt talks

Stournaras to put forward suggestions on how to reduce annual repayments at Monday’s Eurogroup

Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras is due to ask his eurozone counterparts Monday to begin considering further debt relief for Greece, with the government already having drafted a number of options to reduce the repayments the country faces in the years to come.

Having achieved a primary surplus of 1.5 billion euros in 2013, Greece will demand that the Eurogroup lives up to its November 2012 commitment to examine other ways of reducing the country’s giant debt burden of roughly 175 percent of gross domestic product. It is highly unlikely, though, that Stournaras will get an immediate answer. The matter will probably be referred to the Euro Working Group, with the technical team that advises eurozone finance ministers being asked to come up with proposals on how to reduce Greece’s debt.

“Discussions will begin but there are a number of preconditions to be met, not just the primary surplus,” a high-ranking European Union official told Kathimerini. “That is why the negotiations will take place when the next [troika] review [of the Greek adjustment program] has been completed.”

But MacroPolis casts doubt on any rosy scenarios:

Greek Parliament’s budget office questions primary surplus sustainability

In its latest quarterly report released on Friday, the Greek Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) argues that despite significant achievements in 2014, the Greek economy still has a long way to go to overcome the obstacles in its path.

The PBO notes the ratification of Greece’s primary surplus in 2013, the government’s agreement with the troika and the 5-year bond issue but expresses scepticism about whether the country can meet its targets in the next few years.

Commenting on the Medium-Term Fiscal Strategy (MTFS) for 2015 – 2018, which was submitted to Parliament this week, the PBO stresses that the government’s primary surplus targets are overly optimistic for 2016-18. According to the MTFS, the government aims for a primary surplus at 2.3 – 2.5 percent of GDP in 2014-15 increasing to 3.5 – 5.3 percent of GDP in the succeeding three years.

From Kathimerini English, a crucial test for the number three party:

Supreme Court to decide on Golden Dawn ahead of May vote

The so-called secret charter of Golden Dawn, which came to the surface during the ongoing probe into Greece’s ultranationalist party, and the potential inclusion of candidates facing criminal charges on the party’s ticket are expected to determine whether GD will get the green light from the Supreme Court to run in the upcoming European Parliament elections, Kathimerini understands.

Authorities have used the charter, which lays out the Nazi-type structure and fascist ideology of the party, as the basis for charges against several Golden Dawn MPs who are accused of setting up and participating in a criminal organization.

Sources told Kathimerini, GD is unlikely to nominate any of the MPs under probe. The party has already set up a surrogate organization, National Dawn, to take its place should it be banned from running in the vote.

Cyprus next, and good news for bank account holders from EUbusiness:

Bailed out Cyprus lifts last main capital controls

Cyprus abolished restrictions on cashing cheques Friday as it lifted the last main domestic capital controls imposed more than a year ago to avoid a run on banks during bailout negotiations.

“With the new 29th decree issued today by the minister of finance, all restrictions on domestic transactions are lifted… except the opening of a new bank account,” the finance ministry said.

The controls lifted on Friday were a ban on the cashing of cheques and limits on transactions and payments of 50,000 euros ($69,000) for individuals and 200,000 euros for companies.

After the jump, Uruguay goes to pot, Venezuelan forebodings, mixed signals from the Chinese economy, stalled TPP talks, environmental woes, and the latest chapter of Fukushimapocalypse Now!. . .
Continue reading

Map of the day: California drought endures


From the National Drought Monitor, with the latest figures showing that 96.1 percent of the Golden state remains in a state of severe drought or worse, with 25 percent [including the San Francisco Bay Area and the heart of California's agricultural lands in the Central Valley] rated in the most dire of conditions, Exceptional Drought:

BLOG Drought r

Headlines: EconoEcoKleptoMegaManiacs


Once again, a collection of things economic, political, ecological, and more, complete with Fukushimapocalypse Now!

First up, from TechWeekEurope, an ominous notice that Big Brother intends you to wear him, ushering in the dawn of a new era of Taylorism:

Research Proves Wearable Tech Increases Employee Productivity

  • Rakspace says the main challenge now is harvesting data generated by employees’ devices for analytics

Adoption of wearable technology in the workplace can increase staff productivity and job satisfaction, suggests research commissioned by Rackspace.

However, IT professionals have raised concerns about the security of newly-generated data and the sudden increase in IT workloads caused by the introduction of devices like the Fitbit, Pebble and Google Glass.

The findings are the result of the Human Cloud at Work project [PDF], which looks at the impact wearable devices could have on the corporate environment.

Next up, a delay for a key piece of the neoliberal, Ayn Randian agenda from Global Times:

US senators voice concerns over prospects of TPP trade talks

US senators expressed on Thursday concerns over the prospects of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal despite progress made last week between the United States and Japan.

Orrin Hatch, the top Republican at the Senate Finance Committee, said the administration’s trade agenda was at risk of failure without trade promotion authority (TPA).

“I do not believe you can conclude high-standard agreements that will meet Congress’ approval without TPA,” he said during a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee. “History tells us very clearly that without TPA, your trade agenda will almost certainly fail.”

TPA, known as “fast track” trade legislation, provides that Congress must vote up or down on a proposed trade agreement without the possibility of amendment. Without that guarantee, it’s more difficult for other negotiating countries to make significant concessions.

Another significant voice joins in, via Open Media:

Top U.S. Senator: TPP’s secrecy must end and the agreement must “reflect the need for a free and open Internet”

On April 30th, 2014, over 3.1 million citizens and over 50 organizations united in a historic campaign to Stop The Secrecy around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Our campaign culminated in our biggest and brightest projection in Washington D.C. last night – check out the images here.

Then, the next day, one of the most powerful members of the United States Congress, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) spoke out during a crucial Senate Hearing to call for an end to the extreme secrecy around the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Senator Wyden explained, “Too often, there is trade secrecy instead of trade transparency. Bringing the American people into full and open debates on trade agreements that have the effect of law is not too much to ask.” In addition, Wyden also assured citizens that any agreements – including the TPP, “must reflect the need for a free and open internet, strong labor rights, environmental protections, and must be backed by stronger enforcement.”

From the Economic Times, a needed qualification:

Why the US unemployment rate dropped to 6.7%

The unemployment rate plunged for adult high school drop-outs to 8.9 percent from 9.6 percent. But April was a cruel period for them: The number of employed high school drop-outs fell to 9.9 million from 10.1 million. More than 200,000 of them lost jobs.

Their unemployment rate fell because even more of them _ 308,000 _ retired, gave up their search or never started looking for work. That’s a huge negative.

The overall unemployment rate fell primarily because fewer people started looking for work in April. More than 4 million Americans typically do so each month. But in April, only 3.7 million did.

That caused the number of people either working or looking for work to shrink, which, in turn, contributed to lower unemployment rates.

From the New York Times, notable numbers:

Why the Housing Market Is Still Stalling the Economy

Except in a few booming markets, housing is nowhere close to pulling its economic weight. Consider this:

Investment in residential property remains a smaller share of the overall economy than at any time since World War II, contributing less to growth than it did even in previous steep downturns in the early 1980s, when mortgage rates hit 20 percent, or the early 1990s, when hundreds of mortgage lenders failed.

If building activity returned merely to its postwar average proportion of the economy, growth would jump this year to a booming, 1990s-like level of 4 percent, from today’s mediocre 2-plus percent. The additional building, renovating and selling of homes would add about 1.5 million jobs and knock about a percentage point off the unemployment rate, now 6.7 percent. That activity would close nearly 40 percent of the gap between America’s current weak economic state and full economic health.

Resistance, via Al Jazeera America:

Postal workers resist privatization plans

Employees fear outsourcing of mail processing to Staples store counters and potential sale of post office branches

In a recent video message posted to the U.S. Postal Service’s YouTube channel, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe appeared incredulous and indignant about protests that have erupted across the nation over changes he’s instituted. “There’s no interest in privatizing,” he said. “Do not let people get you confused.”

If that message was aimed at soothing the increasing nervousness on the part of postal employee unions, the postmaster failed to deliver. As seen in the simultaneous demonstrations in 27 states last week, as well as the postal employees’ presence at International Workers’ Day rallies on Thursday, several decisions by Donahoe have only heightened fears among America’s postal workers.

The most visible sign of union angst is the movement to thwart Donahoe’s aim of putting full-service USPS counters in 1,500 Staples stores, to be staffed with the office supply chain’s own, lower-paid employees. Yet that’s just the latest in a string of changes that seem geared toward outsourcing various postal jobs, which include efforts to consolidate processing plants and contract out the trucking of mail from plants to post offices.

From the Los Angeles Times, another notable number:

Seattle mayor proposes $15 minimum wage

A day after Republicans in the U.S. Senate quashed an effort to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a proposal Thursday for a $15 municipal minimum wage that he said would “improve the lives of workers who can barely afford to live” in this high-tech city on Puget Sound.

Declaring it a “historic” day for progressives seeking to address the issue of income inequality, Murray laid out his complex and controversial proposal, which would be phased in over several years at different rates for large and small businesses. At least initially, income from tips and employer-provided health insurance would be taken into account.

If the City Council agrees, Murray said, Seattle will prove itself to be “an incubator of democracy,” leading the national conversation to address “the growing problem of income inequality.

And for our final U.S. item, the arrival of a filler four times deadlier than SARS from The Wire:

MERS Reaches the U.S. for the First Time

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control said on Friday that a case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been detected in the U.S. for the first time. The CDC said the MERS-infected patient is a healthcare worker who came to Indiana from Saudi Arabia, adding that it is collaborating with Indiana health officials to investigate the case. Per the CDC:

On April 24, the patient traveled by plane from Saudi Arabia to London, then from London to Chicago. The patient then took a bus from Chicago to Indiana. On the 27th, the patient began to experience signs of illness, including shortness of breath and coughing. The patient went to an emergency department on April 28th. Because of the patient’s symptoms and travel history, Indiana public health officials had him tested for MERS.

MERS, a SARS-like virus that was first detected in 2012, has largely affected patients in Saudi Arabia, but has broken out throughout the Middle East and has made an appearance in Greece, Britain, France, Italy, Malaysia and other countries. Since 2012, more than 300 Saudi Arabians were hit with the virus, and local officials have reported a recent surge in patients. Only about two-thirds of those diagnosed with the virus survived.

Off to Europe and qualified relief from Reuters:

Euro zone joblessness barely falls in March

The number of people out of work in the euro zone fell slightly in March but remained near a record high, a sign that European households are yet to feel the bloc’s economic recovery and are unlikely help generate growth in the short term.

Around 18.91 million people were jobless in the 18-nation bloc in March, 22,000 less than in February, or 11.8 percent of the working population, the EU statistics office Eurostat said on Friday.

That is slightly down from the record 12-percent level a year ago, while the 11.8 percent reading was the same as in February. The February reading was revised down by Eurostat from 11.9 percent earlier.

So what do the numbers show for the European Union? A spectrum ranging of Austrian at the low of 4.9 percent to Greece, with a high of 26.7 percent. Via Eurostat [PDF], click on the image to enlarge:

The two darker areas reflected the 28-member European Union and the 18.member common currency zone, the euro area.

The two darker areas reflected the 28-member European Union and the 18.member common currency zone, the euro area.

Reuters again, and more qualified numbers:

Euro zone factory recovery broadens, except for France

The recovery in euro zone manufacturing accelerated at the start of the second quarter with solid growth across most of the bloc although French factories struggled to maintain momentum, a business survey showed on Friday.

Growth was again led by Germany, Europe’s largest economy, and previously-lagging companies in Spain and Italy reported better business last month.

It was the first time since November 2007 that all PMIs in the region indicated growth – coming in above the 50 break-even level.

On to austerian Britain and some truly grim numbers from The Independent:

UK has second-worst child mortality rate in Western Europe, study finds

  • Leading doctors and midwives accuse Government of ‘failing to protect’ British children

The UK has the second-worst child mortality rate in Western Europe, a major new study has revealed, as leading doctors and midwives accuse the Government of “failing to protect” British children during the financial crisis.

In findings which were described as “shocking” by children’s charities, and which caused surprise among the researchers themselves, the UK ranked behind much poorer countries such as Cyprus and Greece and for prevention of mortality in under-fives.

The under-five mortality rate for the UK was 4.9 deaths for every 1,000 births. Only Malta, a country which ranks well behind the UK in terms of wealth, performed worse in the Western European region. The UK mortality rate was more than twice as high as the best-performing country, Iceland, and 25 per cent higher than the Western European average.

The Guardian covers more dubious numbers:

British aid money invested in gated communities and shopping centres

  • CDC development fund insists projects will create jobs in poor countries but NGOs accuse government of helping big business

Millions of pounds of British aid money to tackle poverty overseas has been invested in builders of gated communities, shopping centres and luxury property in poor countries, the Guardian can reveal.

CDC, the little-known investment arm of the British aid programme, has invested more than $260m (£154m) in 44 property and construction companies in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

At least 20 of these are hotels, shopping centres or companies that build or manage gated communities and luxury property, according to Guardian research.

On to Sweden, and some non-metaphorical alarm bells from TheLocal.se:

Neo-Nazis spark first church alarm since WWII

The churches in Jönköping rang their bells in warning for two hours on May Day as neo-Nazis took to the streets. The alarm marked the first of its kind for the central Sweden town since World War II broke out.

“We chose to ring the bells because we think it’s a threat to our open society when our streets play host to messages that do not respect every person’s value and dignity,” Swedish Church (Svenska Kyrkan) priest Fredrik Hollertz told The Local on Friday.

“We wanted to use what we used in the days of old.”

On to Germany and more interesting numbers from the London Telegraph:

Germany’s interest in Adolf Hitler at record levels

  • Germans more interested in Adolf Hitler than at any time since the Allied defeat of his Third Reich at the end of the Second World War, study finds

Germans are more interested in Adolf Hitler that at any time since the end of the Second World War, a new study has concluded.

The German Media Control research group, which monitors broadcasting, found that documentaries about Hitler are aired twice a day on German television channels and that books and films about the Nazi leader are being produced in record numbers.

It established that 242 programmes dealing specifically with Hitler had been shown on television during the first four months of 2013, while 500 other films and documentaries that had dealt with the Nazi era in general had also been aired.

Some 2,000 books on Hitler were published in Germany last year.

Next, France, and yet more interesting numbers from TheLocal.fr:

Is France really a nation of Eurosceptics?

A recent poll showed fewer than half of the French people believe the EU is a good thing for their country, which is a troubling trend for one of the union’s founders. The Local hit the streets to find out if the French really have become a nation of Eurosceptics.

With European parliament elections just weeks away the French may be having a British moment.

A poll commissioned by French daily Le Figaro recently found that only 44 percent of the French people think the European Union is good for their country, which appears at a first sight a dizzying plummet in one of the Union’s founders and an arch promoter of the project.

But the apparent turning of the tide against the EU has been growing for some time. A study last year showed the French public were rapidly falling out of love with Brussels. What was perhaps most alarming was that the widespread disaffection with the union was spreading quicker in France than in any other country on the continent.

TheLocal.fr again, and a decision sure to please the resurgent Right:

Landmark ruling bars lesbians from adopting

In a landmark decision a lesbian couple were barred from adopting a child, who was conceived through artificial insemination outside France. One gay-rights group slammed the decision saying “Children of LGBT families are the new bastards of the Republic”.

Judges in Versailles refused a request this week by a lesbian woman to adopt a 4-year-old child, who was conceived in Belgium by her partner, thanks to medically assisted procreation (MAP) or artificial insemination.

Currently in France methods of medically assisted procreation like IVF are reserved only for heterosexual couples, who have difficulty having children. However thousands of babies are thought to be born in France each year that were conceived abroad through articificial insemination.

On to the Alps, with TheLocal.ch:

Swiss have world’s highest prices: new study

Residents who find Switzerland to be a costly place to live now have more proof: the mountain country ranks as the most expensive nation on the planet, according to a new study from the World Bank.

The International Comparison Program report, released on Tuesday in the US, compares purchasing power and real expenditures of 177 countries using statistics from 2011.

Switzerland ranks ahead of Norway, Bermuda, Australia and Denmark in the table for highest “price level indexes,” the report says.

Portugal next, with an imprimatur from ANSAmed:

Portugal passes latest troika test

  • 2014 growth to be at 1% of GDP, says deputy PM

The Portuguese government announced on Friday that the so-called troika of international creditors (ECB,EU, and IMF) had approved the efforts undertaken by the country to comply with the aid program agreed three years ago in exchange for a 76-billion-euro loan.

‘’The twelfth assessment was positive,’‘ Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas said in a press conference, underscoring the ‘’climate of confidence coming from all European markets.’‘ Portas added that the international creditors had urged the government to push forward with reforms that the opposition, unions and most citizens – including military and police associations – are against.

The deputy prime minister underscored that at the June 2011 swearing in of Pedro Passos Coelho’s conservative government, interest rates on ten-year government bonds had stood at 10.6%, whereas they have now dropped to 3.6%.

The Portugal News charts a financial invasion:

Brits lead property sale surge

The sale of property in Portugal has recorded positive growth during the first quarter of 2014, the Chairman of National Real Estate Association (APEMIP) revealed this week, with the appetite of British buyers for Portuguese houses showing renewed signs of recovery.

Luís Lima explained that foreign investment played a considerable role in the improvement of the national real estate market, representing 14 percent of the total number of sales during the first three months of the year. However, estimates are that this percentage is substantially greater when solely taking into consideration the monetary value of property sales involving foreign buyers.

“A factor which helped boost figures this past quarter most was the increase in foreign investment and, for example, we started seeing more sales in the Algarve”, Luís Lima told the Lusa News Agency after the release of the association’s latest numbers.

The APEMIP chief put the latest “animated figures” for the first quarter down to mounting interest from foreign buyers, revealing that a total of 24,000 properties changed hands between January and March.

The Portugal News, with an anti-stricke strike:

Inmates launch hunger strike against strike

Fifteen inmates being held in the Monsanto maximum security prison have launched a hunger strike to protest against strike action being taken by prison guards.

According to a report by newspaper Diário de Notícias the inmates are taking action of their own in protest to the guards’ strikes which reduce their access to phone calls and visits.

On to Spain with El País, and that old hard times intolerance, taking the field:

Just another “isolated” racist incident?

  • The throwing of a banana at Barça’s Alves highlights the reluctance to tackle racial abuse in sport

The initial response of the authorities to the banana that was thrown at Barcelona’s Dani Alves during an away match at Villarreal on April 27 was that it was an isolated incident. The problem is that the history of sport, in Spain and around the world, is full of isolated incidents. And after a while, they all add up.

Which is not to say that in some countries action isn’t finally being taken against racism in sport. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball franchise, was recently banned for life from the game, and will likely be forced to sell up after he was recorded telling his girlfriend in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want her bringing black people to games.

“The attitude of the State Commission Against Violence and Racism is lazy and laissez-faire,” says Esteban Ibarra, a member of the two anti-racist organizations in Spain. “All that happens here is that we cover up racism and violence.” It is an attitude that many sports fans will recognize from the way the Spanish authorities have failed to deal with doping.

A provocative push with a purpose from TheLocal.es:

Spanish region to tax owners of empty homes

Spain’s Catalonia region is looking at taxing the owners of properties that have stood empty for more than two years in a bid to increase stocks of social housing.

Under the draft legislation, property owners would have to register properties that have been empty for more than two years as of January 1st 2015. They would then be taxed accordingly. The planned tax is targeted primarily at financial institutions and would be gradual, with annual taxes levied on each property of €500 ($690) to €16,500 depending on how many properties are owned.

The proposal will help breathe life into a market where 15,000 people lost their homes in 2013, Catalonia’s government said in a statement.

On to Italy and a truly gruesome crime from TheLocal.it:

‘Mafia is behind stolen anti-cancer drugs’

A highly organized crime ring is behind the distribution of stolen and fake anti-cancer drugs throughout Europe, an Italian official told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

Domenico Di Giorgio, the director of the prevention of counterfeiting at the Italian Medicines Agency, the pharmaceutical watchdog, said that “organized crime is certainly involved” in the racket, which has raised concern among pharmaceutical professionals that the drugs may be inefficient or even deadly.

Di Giorgio’s agency is currently carrying out an investigation into the matter along with the Italian antifraud squad, the Nuclei Antisofisticazioni e Sanità Carabinieri.

“There’s a central structure apparently based in Italy that commissions thefts of medicines in hospitals,” he was quoted by the newspaper as saying.

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